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FOOTBALL

Isco turning talent into greatness: Spain coach Lopetegui

Spain coach Julen Lopetegui believes Isco is finally making his abundant talent count after scoring twice as La Roja thrashed Italy 3-0 on Saturday to close in on qualification for the World Cup.

Isco turning talent into greatness: Spain coach Lopetegui
Isco celebrates after scoring against Italy. Photo: AFP

After a difficult start to his career at Real Madrid after joining in 2013, Isco has blossomed under the tutelage of Zinedine Zidane in the past year and took his club form onto the international stage with a virtuoso performance.

His measured free-kick opened the scoring 13 minutes in at a packed Santiago Bernabeu before he doubled Spain's lead with a fierce strike on his weaker left foot just before half-time.

“Playing regularly, gaining important experience with his club and with us means that as a footballer he is growing,” said Lopetegui.

“It is one thing to have quality and another to be a great player.

“Isco has always had quality and now he is becoming a great player.”

Alvaro Morata came off the bench to round off a perfect night for Spain as they moved three points ahead of Italy at the top of Group G of European qualifying with just three games against Liechtenstein, Macedonia and Israel to go.

“We are happy, not yet satisfied because we are not qualified but happy because the team responded very well against a difficult opponent,” added Lopetegui.

“I have always been very satisfied with the response of the players and their mentality and commitment to wanting to be a great team.

“We are on the right track, but we have three more games to go.”

Spain's injection of youth since losing to Italy just over a year ago at Euro 2016 was evident.

Isco, Koke, Dani Carvajal and Marco Asensio on his first competitive international start added a spark badly missing as an Italian side managed by Chelsea manager Antonio Conte dominated in a 2-0 win in Paris.

“We've seen a match in which there was a huge difference in the quality and physique of the sides,” admitted Italy boss Giampiero Ventura.

And even Ventura was left impressed by Isco's skills as he wriggled free from three Italian players in the second-half with a nutmeg on Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti.

“You only have to see the technical touch, his vision, with the nutmeg on Verratti when surrounded by three players to see he has incredible quality,” added Ventura.

“I love moments of technique like that. Even though I am on the opposing side, I have to congratulate him.”

Italy are now likely to face a tricky two-legged playoff in November to book their place in Russia next year.

And Ventura claimed it will be hard to close the gap at international level whilst Spanish clubs continue to dominate in European club competition.

Barcelona and Real Madrid have combined to win the Champions League in each of the past four seasons and provided four players each to Spain's starting XI.

“It is simple. You only have to look at almost any Spanish player to see they have played in three Champions League finals and in our side there are very few (with that experience),” said Ventura.

“It is the reality. We need to work step-by-step to improve so that the players can begin to get that same experience.”

READ ALSO: Italy play Russian roulette for World Cup ticket

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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