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Spain v England: Luis Enrique faces first test as Spain manager

"This is my style and I don't care if you don't like it," he said. It was April 2016 and Luis Enrique was asked if he felt sorry for berating a journalist, who had been critical of Barcelona's fitness levels.

Spain v England: Luis Enrique faces first test as Spain manager
Photo: AFP

“I have nothing to apologise for,” he shrugged. “I didn't show anyone a lack of respect.”    

Barça's form had dipped but they would still win the domestic double a month later, one year after he had led them to a brilliant treble in his first season, matching the achievement of Pep Guardiola in 2009. 

A year later Luis Enrique would be gone, after winning six of nine major trophies up for grabs, and yet he left the Camp Nou respected more than he was loved. 

Now he brings his meticulous, single-minded, dynamic, prickly, all-or-nothing style to the Spain dugout, ready to undergo his first test at Wembley against England on Saturday. 

When the fixture was announced in May, as part of the inaugural UEFA Nations League, few would have expected it to be the visitors confronting questions about style, youth and an under performing goalkeeper, following a humiliating World Cup exit. 

The new coach's press appearances so far suggest he will carry that same edge felt by the journalist two years ago into international management, and it remains to be seen whether it proves a source of unification or alienation amongst his players. 

“Luis Enrique lays down the law”, read the front-page headline in sports daily Marca on Wednesday, with a new set of rules listed, including a ban on mobile phones, earlier bedtimes, fines for lateness, fewer days off and a streamlined training-ground buffet. 

Deep-rooted doubts

But David de Gea allowing Cristiano Ronaldo's shot to skip off his hands was not the cause of Spain failing to break down Russia before losing to the hosts on penalties at the World Cup, and neither was a penchant for texting or fried food. 

More deep-rooted are the doubts about Spain's possession game, so revolutionary during the golden years of 2008, 2010 and 2012, but now seen by some as a millstone around their necks. 

High-pressing, quick transitions and counter-attack have become the buzzwords of club football and there is a sense Spain have been left clinging, out of sentiment or even pride, to a style many opponents have worked out.    

Even before Julen Lopetegui was lured away by Real Madrid on the eve of the World Cup, throwing their tournament into chaos, Spain's preparations had ended with a plodding 1-0 win over Tunisia and a 1-1 draw with Switzerland.    

Luis Enrique knows better than anyone the pitfalls of tweaking an identity both entrenched and once adored. 

“We have to evolve that idea, perfect it, make it even better, so we can surprise opponents and they don't know how we will play,” he said upon taking over at Barcelona.    

At Barça, Luis Suarez became a motif for the high press and occasional straight ball over the top. But even when they were winning, many at Barça were still not convinced by his style, and when they were losing, it was a big stick used to beat him with. 

After starting at Sporting Gijon, he played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona. His strengths as a player, and perhaps even now as a coach, lay in his energy, dynamism and versatility, more than subtlety or craft. 

Spain should be more open to tweaking on the back of failure at three consecutive major tournaments. Only Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos remain from the team that triumphed in 2012, with Gerard Pique, David Silva and Andres Iniesta all retiring after the World Cup, and Jordi Alba surprisingly jettisoned from this opening squad.

Luis Enrique's task is to find the sweetspot between the old Spain and the new. He will not worry who he upsets along the way.

By AFP's Thomas Allnutt

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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