Real Madrid depth keeps rare double alive

Real Madrid welcome Atletico Madrid for the first leg of their Champions League semi-final on Tuesday hoping to do something that has been beyond the reigning 11-time European champions for six decades.

Real Madrid depth keeps rare double alive
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo heads a ball during a training session at Valdebebas Sport City in Madrid on May 1, 2017 on the eve of their Champions' League semi-final first leg football match again
Alfredo Di Stefano — not Cristiano Ronaldo — was Madrid's star man the last time Los Blancos won La Liga and Europe's top club prize in the same season.
The eight times Real have been crowned champions of Europe since, they have always done so happy to sacrifice La Liga for the tournament they see as defining their role as the biggest and best club in the world.
“I won a Champions League with Madrid in a year in which we trained horribly,” former Spanish international goalkeeper Santiago Canizares told radio station Cadena SER of the 1997/98 season. “There was very little commitment, but it was like there was psychological doping when we played in the Champions League. Everyone performed.”
Two years later he experienced the power of Madrid's commitment to the Champions League from the opposite side.
“Then I lost a final with Valencia against Madrid in another horrible season for them. They finished the league terribly, there were problems in the dressing room… and then they arrived in Paris and played us off the park.”
Even this season the lure of becoming the first side to successfully defend the Champions League has edged out that of ending Barcelona's dominance of La Liga.
That has been evidenced by coach Zinedine Zidane's line-ups for a string of recent Liga games sandwiched between big European ties.
None of Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric or Toni Kroos started any of Madrid's last three away games.
In their absence the likes of Isco, Alvaro Morata and Marco Asensio have shone and Madrid won all three games, scoring 13 times in the process.
Real have already played 53 games this season across five competitions and even two continents after travelling to Japan for the Club World Cup.
Yet they remain on course for the most successful season in the club's storied recent history thanks to the depth of their resources.
One-season luxury?
Which has thrown up a new dilemma: the performances of Madrid's youngsters have left question marks over whether a few star names deserve their place in the team for Tuesday's semi-final.
Real smashed Deportivo la Coruna 6-2 on Wednesday with a team containing nine changes from the side that lost El Clasico to Barcelona days previously.
Yet they laboured to beat Valencia 2-1 thanks to Marcelo's late strike when Zidane resorted to largely his preferred XI on Saturday.
“For me, it is harder to play against Madrid's B team than their A team,” said Deportivo boss Pepe Mel.
Bale's absence through injury means that one of Isco or Asensio are likely to finally start one of Real's biggest games of the season this week.
However, even for Real Madrid, a squad of this size and talent may be a one-season luxury.
Isco, Morata and James Rodriguez have all been heavily linked with moves away from the Bernabeu in the summer due to their lack of game time.
At 21 and 22 respectively, Asensio and Mateo Kovacic have the time to be more patient, but they too will expect to graduate to first-team regulars — or find somewhere else where they will be.
By AFP's Kieran Canning

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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.