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FOOTBALL

Champions League poses La Liga distraction

There may be a full programme of Spanish Primera Liga matches this weekend but the country's top teams appear firmly focused on next week's Champions League quarter-finals.

League leaders Barcelona travel to Celta Vigo while champions Real Madrid are in Aragon to take on Real Zaragoza, and yet both teams seem more concentrated on their European commitments.

Madrid's Xabi Alonso met fans for an autograph signing session this week and then revealed that the nine-time European champions' supporters are also far more concerned with midweek affairs.

"What most have said to me is that they want the 10th (European title). The Champions League is dear to all us Madridistas (Real fans), (we want) to go all the way to the final."

"But before then there are several steps to take and the first of those is on Wednesday, playing at home. We want to pocket a good result and it's sure to be a good game and a great atmosphere."

Real host Galatasaray in their quarter-final, first leg at the Santiago Bernabeu as they go in search of a third straight semi-final appearance.

However, they have not reached the final since 2002, when they beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-1, and such a long exile from European club football's showpiece event does not sit well with gluttonous fans used to a diet of regular success.

It has taken on extra special significance this season as Real trail bitter rivals Barca by 13 points in La Liga, with no realistic prospect of retaining their title.

"The league situation is not ideal but we still want to keep going in the same manner, doing things well and trying to win every game," added Alonso.

"Zaragoza are having problems, they're on a bad run but every away match at every ground is complicated and I don't think it will be easy."

The Aragonese have not won a league match since the turn of the year and currently sit just one place above the drop zone.

They've only picked up four points from a possible 33 and have scored just five times in that period.

Contrast that with Madrid, who won 4-0 when the sides met at the Bernabeu in November and have won six in a row in La Liga, and the hosts appear to have little chance of success.

Real scored as many goals in their last match as Zaragoza had done in their previous 11.

It's not just Real who are fixated on Europe, though, as Barca also have more than one eye on Paris Saint-Germain.

Influential midfielder Xavi Hernandez played 90 minutes for Spain against France on Tuesday despite carrying a hamstring problem and local press reports claim he will be rested at the weekend in order to give him time to be fully fit for another trip to the French capital.

Celta are three points from safety and desperate to get a result to boost their survival chances.

While Barca can certainly consider resting some of their stars, the third Spanish representatives in Europe's premier competition, Malaga, cannot afford that luxury.

Sixth in the table, they travel to Madrid to face Rayo Vallecano, who lie three points further back in ninth.

Third-placed Atletico Madrid play host to another Champions League-chasing side, Valencia, on Sunday at the Vicente Calderon.

Fixtures (kick-off times GMT):

Saturday

Rayo Vallecano v Malaga (1500), Celta Vigo v Barcelona (1700), Real

Zaragoza v Real Madrid (1900), Levante v Sevilla (2100)

Sunday

Valladolid v Osasuna (1000), Mallorca v Deportivo (1500), Espanyol v Real

Sociedad (1700), Atletico Madrid v Valencia (1900)

Monday

Athletic Bilbao v Granada (1800), Real Betis v Getafe (2000)

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FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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