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FOOTBALL

Fantastic Messi hat-trick sees Barça blow away Betis

Even the Real Betis fans were applauding by the end as Lionel Messi scored another spectacular hat-trick to fire Barcelona to a 4-1 victory on Sunday and leave them with one hand on the La Liga trophy.

Fantastic Messi hat-trick sees Barça blow away Betis
Lionel Messi scored a hat trick for Barça. Photo: AFP

Messi's treble, his second in a month in Seville, fourth of the season and 51st of his career, moves Barça 10 points clear of Atletico Madrid with 10 games left to play, a gap surely too big to close.

“We had a great opportunity to increase the gap on Atletico,” Messi said. “We had to take it tonight.”

Luis Suarez, whose superb flick set up Messi's second, scored his own brilliant goal after a scintillating solo run but it was ultimately reduced to a footnote, in what became another night all about his Argentinian partner.    

The only blot was the sight of Suarez limping off late on, with what coach Ernesto Valverde suspected was a “bad sprain” to his ankle.   

Messi now has 29 league goals this season, 39 in all competitions, and together with Suarez's 18 their joint-total of 47 is more than all but two of the other teams in the division.

A simple finish from Suarez's exquisite assist came between a free-kick perfectly planted into the top corner and a bending lob that grazed the crossbar and dropped in.

The Betis fans left at the Benito Villamarin, and most of them were, felt compelled to stand and applaud. 

“I don't remember the opposition cheering me for a goal, I am very grateful,” Messi said.

This was supposed to be one of the more awkward tests in Barcelona's  run-in, which includes Atletico Madrid at home and fifth-placed Alaves away.   

All the rest of their opponents currently sit 10th or lower.   

But regardless of the fixtures, Barça seem to be saving their best for the home straight, which bodes badly for Manchester United, whom they face in the Champions League quarter-finals next month. 

Already in the final of the Copa del Rey, where Barça will return to this stadium to face Valencia in May, a treble is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

No time to breathe

There was barely a moment to pause for breath in the first half, both teams throwing players forward without restraint or, seemingly, regard for the spaces they left at the back.

Betis were happy to open up and almost took the lead when Joaquin volleyed first-time to the stretching Sergio Canales, but he was unable to connect.   

Barça were perhaps fortunate to earn the free-kick for Messi's opener as Canales obstructed Arthur Melo just outside the area, to the right of centre.   

But there was no luck in Messi's shot, which flew like a dart over the ducking head of Gerard Pique, past the hand of Pau Lopez, and into the top left-hand corner.

Betis came again, Arthur twice scrambling the ball away from Canales in the box, before Suarez missed a sitter after being teed up by Messi.   

He made amends just before half-time. Messi fired into the feet of the Uruguayan, who took the ball one way and flicked it the other, behind his leg and into the path of Messi, who did the rest.

Betis could have been four down by the hour as Suarez missed two more, but the chances kept coming, and he finally hit the mark.   

There were four defenders ahead when he began his run from the halfway line but Suarez sped past one and between two more, each of them colliding into the other before being left sprawled on the ground. 

Aissa Mandi made one final lunge but Suarez skipped through to finish.   

Loren Moron curled in a consolation for Betis but Messi had the final say. Ivan Rakitic rolled the ball back and he clipped a sumptuous chip over Lopez, off the crossbar and in.

Suarez limped off injured in the final minutes and Messi could have added a fifth, only for the post to rescue Betis. Four was enough.

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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