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FOOTBALL

Solari to make closing argument for revived Madrid job

Santiago Solari is pitching for more than just three points as Real Madrid continue their revival under the interim coach and head to Celta Vigo aiming for their fourth straight win.

Solari to make closing argument for revived Madrid job
Coach Santiago Solari oversees a training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League group G football match. Photo: AFP

Solari's time as the European champions' stop-gap following Julen Lopetegui's sacking will expire over the international break, and club president Florentino Perez needs to decide whether to take the Argentine on permanently.   

Real have bounced back under Solari, with Wednesday's 5-0 drubbing of Viktoria Plzen a clear sign of life in the struggling giants.   

A win at bouncing Balaidos could well be enough to convince Perez the job should be Solari's, at least until the end of the season, when a more established alternatives could be available. 

“We're doing fine with him,” striker Karim Benzema said on Wednesday. “I don't see a coach coming for one or two months, for me Solari has to stay until the end of the season. He's a great coach. Now we have more confidence and we are going to fight.”

Few could begrudge Solari the opportunity to prove himself after stepping up from Madrid's B team to take charge.    

READ MORE: Solari: Five things you need to know about Real Madrid's new coach

Madrid have scored 11 and conceded none since Solari's arrival, against admittedly modest opposition — Melilla from the Spanish third tier, Real Valladolid at home and Plzen. 

Luck has also played its part, as Vinicius Junior's deflected shot prevented what looked set to be a stalemate against Valladolid with seven minutes to play. A draw there and Solari's tenure might never have got off the 
ground.    

However it was Solari's decision to bring on the 18-year-old Vinicius, whose youthful exuberance produced an ambitious strike at the end of a weaving run.

Celta will offer a sterner test this weekend. They are the third highest scorers in the division and in Iago Aspas boast the sort of smart finisher Madrid might have signed in the summer. 

Messi return?

Aspas' eight goals this term puts him one up on Lionel Messi, who could return on Sunday when league leaders Barcelona host Real Betis after three weeks out with a broken arm. 

Messi was included in Barca's travelling squad to face Inter Milan on Wednesday but watched from the ands as his side reached the Champions League knockout stages with a 1-1 draw at the San Siro. 

 “We wanted him to travel with the team, to train to see how he was,” coach Ernesto Valverde said. Valverde has been afforded the luxury of easing Messi back by his team's strong run without him.   

Reaching the last 16 in Europe came after five wins on the bounce, four of them without Messi, including one against Inter at home and the 5-1 hammering of Real Madrid. 

A tricky period of fixtures continues against Betis and ends at Atletico Madrid after the international break.

Luis Suarez's with six goals in his last five games have been integral but Jordi Alba has arguably been Barca's player of the season so far.    

His form has forced Spain coach Luis Enrique to concede defeat in his mysterious stand-off with the full-back, calling Alba up for the first time on Thursday.

Diego Costa and Koke missed out on the squad with injury as Atletico Madrid head into their clash with Athletic Bilbao on Saturday with a dizzying list of absentees.

Thomas Lemar, Diego Godin and Stefan Savic were also missing for Tuesday's impressive 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, in which Jose Gimenez pulled up with a muscle problem. 

Fourth-placed Atleti are four points behind leaders Barca and looking to build on the momentum gained in midweek and leapfrog Sevilla and Espanyol, who play each other in Andalusia on Sunday.

By AFP's Thomas Allnut 

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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