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FOOTBALL

Lopetegui the fall-guy for wider malaise at Madrid

Amid the sprawl of headlines calling for Julen Lopetegui to be sacked by Real Madrid on Sunday, Diario AS ran an online poll: who is more guilty, the coach or the club president?

Lopetegui the fall-guy for wider malaise at Madrid
Are Julen Lopetegui's days numbered? Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP
Just over 80,000 replies were credited – almost 17,000 more than had attended the Santiago Bernabeu the day before – and 86 percent of them answered Florentino Perez. 
 
There were whistles after Madrid's 2-1 loss to Levante on Saturday, their fourth defeat in five games and third in a row. There was a scattering of swinging white handkerchiefs too. But the atmosphere was marked more by deflation than disgust. At the end, as his players hunched on their knees, Lopetegui stood on the touchline, staring into space. 
 
“Julen has the support of the entire team,” Sergio Ramos said.
 
“We are with him to the death,” said Marcelo.
 
Lopetegui is on the brink – he may well not make the Clasico on Sunday – but there is a sense this “mega crisis”, as termed by Barcelona's Mundo Deportivo, has been a long-time coming. 
 
In July, days after Cristiano Ronaldo had left for Juventus, Perez defended his recruitment strategy, saying: “Madrid is strengthening its search for young players that will become the next great players of the sport.” 
 
By the end of the summer, they had signed Vinicius, the 18-year-old striker from Flamengo, Alvaro Odriozola, a 22-year-old right back from Real Sociedad, and Mariano Diaz, who returned after a decent season with Lyon. 
 
Only Thibaut Courtois could be considered a star, and he was joining a club that already had UEFA's goalkeeper of the season.
 
Papering over cracks
 
One theory goes that Perez is keeping the treasury full in preparation for a fresh tilt for Neymar next summer. It might explain too why a move for Eden Hazard has never been pushed through. In the meantime, Zinedine Zidane and now, Lopetegui, have been charged with papering over the cracks. 
 
Zidane managed it, spectacularly, by winning in Europe, although if Michael Oliver had not puffed his whistle for a borderline 98th-minute penalty against Juventus, Madrid would have been out in the last 16. In La Liga, they finished 17 points behind Barcelona. 
 
Three Champions League titles in a row is no fluke, just as two interventions from the Video Assistant Referee were not the sole reason Madrid lost at home to Levante for the first time in 11 years. 
 
Defensive mistakes, panicky finishing and stodgy build-up all reflected badly on Lopetegui, who made matters worse by leaving Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema on the bench.
 
Both endured fitness issues over the international break but were excellent in the second half. By then, it was too late. 
 
“I believe in this team more than ever,” Lopetegui said.
 
Only one of the last six Madrid coaches to preside over three consecutive defeats was not sacked afterwards. That was Bernd Schuster, whose team had put their feet up after winning the title in 2008. 
 
Marca's headline ran 'This Madrid is in ruins' on Sunday, with the emphasis on 'this', while El Pais claim Perez has already decided on change after next weekend's Clasico at Camp Nou. 
 
Santiago Solari, coach of Castilla, Real Madrid's B team, could take charge in the short-term but Perez's problem in hiring a suitable successor in the summer has not been solved four months later.
 
Mauricio Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp and Max Allegri would all be near-impossible to sign mid-season, while Joachim Low is still attached to Germany. Antonio Conte is out of work but there is an issue with the Italian's style of play. Arsene Wenger would be fascinating but high-risk. 
 
For Lopetegui to call off the search, victory is surely essential at home to Viktoria Plzen in midweek. Then avoiding defeat to Barcelona, who will be without the injured Lionel Messi, could buy him a trio of theoretically kinder fixtures against Melilla in the Copa del Rey, Real Valladolid in the league and Plzen again in the Champions League. Win those, and the outlook might look more rosy. 
 
For now, though, that seems a long way off. Perez's period of austerity is coming home to roost. 
 
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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