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FOOTBALL

Penalty thriller puts Spain through to final

Jesús Navas settled a nail-biting penalty shoot-out 7-6 for Spain as the world and European champions edged Italy on a sultry evening in Fortaleza on Thursday to set up a Confederations Cup final meeting with Brazil.

Penalty thriller puts Spain through to final
New Manchester City signing Navas finally put an end to the nerve-wracking penalty shootout. Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP

After the semi-final finished goalless following extra time, Leonardo Bonucci proved the fall guy for the Italians, blazing the 13th kick of the shoot-out over the bar before Manchester City new boy Navas calmly tucked his penalty home.

Spain will now seek to complete their set of senior international titles, having also won Olympic gold in Barcelona in 1992, but hosts Brazil were spared a 120-minute semi-final and will have had 24 extra hours to recover.

"It was a very difficult match for us and we'll have to think about what we have to do in the next three days to recover," said Spain coach Vicente del Bosque.

"We will definitely stand up to Brazil in the Maracana and I hope the players will feel as happy as kids about playing there."

Italy were left to curse their luck after initially shackling Spain in the first half, and coach Cesare Prandelli must now galvanise minds and bodies for Sunday's meeting with Uruguay in the third-place play-off.

He nonetheless drew solace from the way his side matched Spain, having seen Italy crushed 4-0 when the sides last met in last year's one-sided Euro 2012 final in Kiev.

"The lads played a great match, from the first minute to the last, and we created plenty of situations that could have won us the game," Prandelli said.

"But once it goes to penalties, anything can happen," he added.

"Spain are currently ahead of us because they've been following the same ideology for years, whereas we're still forging our own path."

Chastened by the memory of the Euro 2012 final, Prandelli reverted to the formula he had successfully used in the 1-1 draw between the sides earlier in that tournament.

Italy lined up with a three-man defence and no fewer than six midfielders at Estadio Castelao, Claudio Marchisio and Antonio Candreva providing support for lone striker Alberto Gilardino.

As a result, Spain's intricate passing exchanges foundered far from the Italian goal, and Prandelli's men were bold in their exploitation of the space behind the Spanish defence.

Right wing-back Christian Maggio was particularly prominent, heading over from a corner and then drawing a fine save from Iker Casillas with a header after Andrea Pirlo picked him out with a raking 60-yard pass.

The Napoli man seemed destined to break the deadlock in the 36th minute when Emanuele Giaccherini's inviting cross found him steaming in on Casillas' goal, but his header was straight at the goalkeeper.

Within seconds, Fernando Torres almost punished Italy, but after neatly outfoxing Andrea Barzagli, he drilled his left-foot shot across goal and wide.

Amid cloying humidity, the intensity dropped in the second half, and Spain occasionally found themselves in the unfamiliar position of hearing their opponents' passing combinations celebrated with chants of 'Ole!'

Spain centre-back Gerard Pique, watched by celebrity girlfriend Shakira, could have settled the tie in the 85th minute, but he blazed over from Navas' low pass and the game went to extra time.

Italy almost broke through in the third minute of the extra period when Giaccherini rattled the post with a rising left-foot drive.

Del Bosque elected to swap Torres for holding midfielder Javi Martinez, but it gave Spain momentum, with Pique and Jordi Alba both going close.

Substitute Juan Mata also curled wide, before Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon unconvincingly palmed a shot from Xavi onto the post and Martinez's follow-up effort evaded Mata's toes by inches.

Buffon then had to touch away a low effort from Navas as Spain threatened to snatch victory at the death, but thanks to Bonucci's misfortune, the Spain substitute would still have the final say.

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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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