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Lopetegui faces demanding task reviving Spain’s glory

Julien Lopetegui is the man charged with restoring Spain's former glories, but he faces a demanding task in just getting La Roja to Russia in two years' time with Euros' conquerors Italy lying in wait in qualifying.

Lopetegui faces demanding task reviving Spain's glory
Julien Lopetegui tried and failed to awaken the dragon at Porto. Can he do a better job for Spain? Photo: Francisco Leong/AFP
Faint hopes Spain's spectacular fall from grace at the 2014 World Cup was a mere blip were extinguished as another early exit at Euro 2016 finally ended Vicente del Bosque's eight-year reign as coach.
    
Spain haven't lost a World Cup qualifier for a remarkable 23 years and that record shouldn't be challenged when Liechtenstein visit Leon at the start of the long road to Russia on Monday.
   
Yet, Lopetegui's new era needs to hit the ground running with a trip to Italy next up in early October and only the group winners guaranteed to qualify.
   
Lopetegui's appointment after Del Bosque's resignation was generally seen as an underwhelming one. Despite success in winning the under-19 and under-21 European championships with the Spanish youth ranks, his debut in a top-flight managerial role with Porto ended without a trophy and the sack in January 2016.
   
However, that scepticism eased after a convincing 2-0 win away to Belgium on his debut. Tellingly, he has already begun to inject a tired looking squad with the fresh blood it needed prior to the Euros.
   
Of the 11 that started in Brussels on Thursday, nine were in Del Bosque's Euros squad. Yet, Lopetegui has not shied away from big decisions.
   
Captain and record caps holder Iker Casillas was finally left out of the squad, as was two-time European champion and World Cup winner Cesc Fabregas.
   
The selection of Fabregas after a poor season with Chelsea ahead of Koke and Thiago Alcantara at the Euros was an unpopular one. Tellingly, having played just a combined 45 minutes in France, the Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielders played all 90 minutes in Belgium.
 
Dani Carvajal, 24, replaced 31-year-old Juanfran at right-back, whilst the only other player to start who missed out on the Euros, Vitolo, played a crucial role in both goals scored by Manchester City's David Silva.
   
“The young players are here because I believe that they deserve to be and they have the ability,” said Lopetegui. “Little-by-little they have to assume that role and continue developing.”
   
Crucially, Lopetegui has already coached David de Gea, Carvajal, Saul Niguez, Koke, Thiago and Alvaro Morata in his time with the Spanish youth
teams.
   
That youthful core added to the likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Silva still in their prime means there is no reason why Spain shouldn't be contenders in Russia if Lopetegui rekindles the hunger lost in the final years of Del Bosque's reign.
   
A change of coach even seems to have done Diego Costa good as the nationalised Brazilian showed in Brussels much more of the controlled aggression that saw him recruited by Del Bosque than the timid shadow of himself he's often seemed in a Spain shirt.
   
“If I was a Real Madrid or Barcelona player they would say I played well…but given I am not a natural Spaniard…” raged Costa afterwards when questioned about failing to score.
   
Costa was one of the few players even Del Bosque lost patience with as he was dropped for the Euros after a return of just one goal in 10 caps. However, boosted by the confidence of early season winners against West Ham and Watford for Chelsea, Costa looks fit and back close to his best.
   
“We are all with him,” said Alba. “The best way to defend Costa is the way he played (against Belgium).”

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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