Spain World Cup push on track despite upheaval, says Azpilicueta

Cesar Azpilicueta is convinced Spain have what it takes to contend for the World Cup title despite a shaky start and the dismissal of coach Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament.

Spain World Cup push on track despite upheaval, says Azpilicueta
Spain's defender Cesar Azpilicueta takes part in a training session in Kaliningrad last week. Photo: Patrick HERTZOG / AFP
The 2010 world champions qualified for the last 16 as winners of Group B ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, and face hosts Russia in Moscow on Sunday.
Spain are unbeaten in 23 matches, a run dating back to Euro 2016, but the Spanish federation's decision to sack Lopetegui after he accepted the Real Madrid job threatened to derail their campaign.
“It's clear that it's an unusual circumstance that doesn't happen often, but that's what happened and you have to take things as they are,” Chelsea defender Azpilicueta said in an interview with AFP.  “You can't shy away, you have to accept the reality. We must do our work in the best way we can and go as far as possible.”
Fernando Hierro, the former Real captain who played 89 times for Spain, was appointed to replace Lopetegui despite limited previous coaching experience. The 50-year-old Hierro spent a single season in charge of second division Spanish outfit Oviedo, but Azpilicueta is confident he can handle the international role. 
“Fernando has shown great enthusiasm, he's very involved. He had to face up to this situation and he is giving everything he has to help us, to improve the team,” he said.  “I have no doubt we're going to achieve our goal.”
“The dynamic is very good, very similar to that of the last two years,” he added. “The group is united, with a desire to grow, and thirsty for victory.  Each coach has their own way of working but there haven't been any big changes.”
Spain find themselves in a half of the draw that includes just one other former champion, England, although a porous defence has been a cause for concern.
Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in a thrilling 3-3 draw with Portugal in their opening game, while Spain's backline was breached twice more by Morocco. 
No room for error
“It's true that we've scored goals but we've also conceded a lot of them too,” said Azpilicueta. “We're professionals, we have clear minds and we know we can offer more. 
“We're an offensive team, with lots of attacking players, and we've always had this problem. When you get lots of players up front, sometimes a counter-attack can take you by surprise and lead to a chance for the opposition. We must work on this point and regain our solidity.”
Russia will have the backing of the vast majority of the 80,000 fans at the iconic Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, and Azpilicueta is aware of the problems the home side can pose.
Spain drew 3-3 with Russia in a friendly in Saint Petersburg last November, a game in which Krasnodar forward Fedor Smolov netted twice.
“They're playing at home and it's clear we don't have any room for error,” said Azpilicueta. “We have to give our all from the first minute to the last. Russia are a solid team physically with quality players and we suffered against them in a friendly in Saint Petersburg.
“Aside from their last match, they've won with a certain ease and it will be a difficult game.”
Azpilicueta dismissed suggestions Andres Iniesta is struggling with the physical demands in Russia, in what is the 34-year-old's final World Cup. Iniesta, whose goal won the title for Spain in 2010, started each of Spain's group games but lasted the duration just once.
“Andres is a special player who can make the difference at any moment. He controls the game,” said Azpilicueta.  “If we'd won our first three matches perhaps we wouldn't be talking about that. We know when not everything goes as planned people look everywhere for problems. I really have no doubt that Andres is a key player and is going to continue to be.”


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.