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FOOTBALL

Barcelona must prove they are world’s best: Luis Enrique

Barcelona boss Luis Enrique urged his side to show they are still the best team in the world in the final two months of the season after suffering a second consecutive La Liga defeat 1-0 at Real Sociedad on Saturday.

Barcelona must prove they are world's best: Luis Enrique
Real Sociedad's defender Mikel Gonzalez (R) celebrates their victory against Barcelona as Barca forward, Lionel Messi looks on. Photo: AFP

The European champions saw their lead at the top of La Liga shrink to three points over Atletico Madrid with six games remaining after they beat Espanyol 3-1.

Real Madrid are also in the title race a point further adrift as they saw off Basque minnows Eibar 4-0.

“We have never said the league is over,” said Enrique.

“It is a marvellous opportunity to show we are the best team in the world and that is why we carry that badge on our chest.”

Barca have taken just one point from their last three league games to see a commanding lead slip away, but they still need to drop points in two of their remaining matches to surrender top spot, thanks to their better head-to-head record with Atletico.

Defeat also continued Barca's miserable run at Sociedad's Anoeta stadium, where they have now lost on their last four league visits.

“Evidently, there is a title race with six games remaining. It is an exciting and open league which the best team will win. At the moment we are top,” added Enrique.

Barca also face a huge challenge to maintain their hopes of becoming the first side to retain the Champions League when they visit Atletico for their quarter-final, second leg on Wednesday.

The Catalans travel to Madrid with a 2-1 lead handed to them by Luis Suarez's double after Atletico had been reduced to 10 men by Fernando Torres's first-half red card in the first leg.

“Pessimistic thoughts and opinions that I'm sure will accompany us in the coming days don't benefit the team at all,” Enrique continued.

“We are not machines, we are human. Evidently, today is not a good day for us, but we have to lift ourselves from the moment we leave this beautiful stadium which doesn't bring us much luck and think that on Wednesday we have the chance to be in the semi-finals of the Champions League.”

As well as missing the suspended Suarez, Enrique had left Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Jordi Alba on the bench with one eye on the visit to the Vicente Calderon.

All three were called into action after the break, but Iniesta and Lionel Messi were both twice denied by Sociedad keeper Geronimo Rulli.

“In the first half we didn't create enough chances,” said Iniesta.

“In the second half we were better, but we didn't take our opportunities.

“Everything is getting tighter at the top and we've used up the cushion we had, but we are still Barcelona and we are still close to our objectives.”

Meanwhile, Barca defender Gerard Pique called for a big reaction from his teammates to ensure their Champions League dream isn't snuffed out by Atletico.

“The important game is on Wednesday. That is when we have the most important competition at stake.

“No team can do everything perfectly all season. We know what we have to improve on.”

 

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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