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FOOTBALL

Real Madrid take upper-hand in Clasico clash with Barcelona

Real Madrid gained a measure of redemption at the Camp Nou by holding Barcelona to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday and taking the upper-hand in the semi-final of Copa del Rey.

Real Madrid take upper-hand in Clasico clash with Barcelona
Battling for the ball during the Spanish Copa del Rey (King's Cup) semi-final first leg football match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at the Camp Nou stadium. Photo: AFP

Neither Lionel Messi nor Gareth Bale were named in the starting line-ups for this first leg but their replacements filled the void as Malcom's curling shot cancelled out an early opener from Lucas Vazquez. 

After an impressive opening 20 minutes, Madrid were largely second best in a compelling, if unspectacular, Clasico but the result leaves them well-placed heading into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu on February 27th.    

For Santiago Solari's side, a resilient, gutsy display will also help erase the memory of their humiliation here in October, when they were thrashed 5-1, a result that caused Julen Lopetegui to be sacked the following day.   

“Comparisons are unhelpful,” said Solari. “But this result shows how hard the team is working.”

Messi, who had been struggling with a thigh problem, and Bale, who faces a fight for place after recovering from a calf injury, both came on after the hour but neither could inspire a winner. 

Instead, it was Vazquez, and two youthful Brazilians that took centre stage. Vazquez scored but Vinicius Junior, the youngest Real Madrid player to feature in a Clasico this century, was his team's greatest threat until the 18-year-old departed in the second half. 

“I'm not surprised by how he plays because I've known him since he arrived,” said Solari. “But an 18-year-old boy playing and developing in this way, that is a surprise.”

Malcom was just as unpredictable and in the end, it was the 21-year-old's intervention that keeps Barça on level terms.    

“The tie is in the balance,” coach Ernesto Valverde said. “A draw is a fair reflection,” said Sergio Busquets.

Barely 10 seconds had passed before Toni Kroos snapped into Ivan Rakitic, setting the tone for what was a dominant opening spell from Madrid.    

Vinicius led the way. He was fearless, full of imperfections and erratic decisions but delivering moments of clarity too when Madrid were at their most threatening. 

Benzema sets up Vazquez

He jinked inside Nelson Semedo and teed up Kroos before producing the cross that created the goal, an arching ball over the head of Jordi Alba, which Karim Benzema tucked back for Vazquez to poke in. 

Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho were both careless in possession but Vinicius lacked precision to capitalise, first scuttling into Benzema and then misreading the Frenchman's run. 

Barça had been just as frantic, with Luis Suarez even tripping over his own feet. But they improved and after half an hour, were in the ascendancy.    

Malcom missed a one-on-one and then became their best player for a period, crossing for Rakitic to head against the bar and teeing up Suarez to sting the hands of Keylor Navas. 

The home fans called Messi's name at the start of the second half and when he jogged up the touchline shortly before the hour, they roared as if for a goal. 

They did that soon after too, after an equaliser of chaos and quality in equal measure. Navas rushed out to block Alba before Suarez curled a brilliant shot that beat the diving Sergio Ramos but not the post. 

It spilled to Malcom and he still had work to do, 20 yards out with white shirts in front. He found a gap. 

Messi came on, along with Arturo Vidal, Bale and Casemiro. Vinicius was among those to make way, his bright start fading with fatigue.    

Neither side seemed sure how much to commit for a winner. Messi twice weaved through but the best chance fell to Bale, who received from Benzema after Marc-Andre ter Stegen's skewed clearance. The goal was open but Bale's touch was heavy and Semedo made a crucial block.

By AFP's Thomas Allnutt

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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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