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FOOTBALL

Ibrahimovic marks Milan return with a hat-trick

Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic signalled his return to action after a three match ban with a first-half hat-trick, helping defending champions Milan to an emphatic 4-0 win over Palermo on Saturday.

Ibrahimovic marks Milan return with a hat-trick

The win allowed Milan to open a three-point lead over Juventus, who suffered a setback when they were held 1-1 by Chievo. The Turin team still have a game in hand but are handicapped by a vastly inferior goal difference.

“I’ll get the whole team to sign the ball and then take it home with me,” said Ibrahimovic, whose last hat-trick was as a Juve player in 2005.

“We played an important game very well and must now keep going like this.”

Palermo had not lost to Milan at home since 2006 but Ibrahimovic soon put that record to bed by giving his side a 3-0 lead by the 35th minute.

He broke the deadlock in the 21st minute when Sulley Muntari set up Robinho, who found the big Swede in space to find the target with a left-footed curler.

Ten minutes later it was 2-0, when Ibrahimovic poked a low drive past goalkeeper Emiliano Viviano.

He completed his hat-trick after 35 minutes when he guided a shot inside the right-hand post from a few yards outside the area.

Milan’s rout was confirmed just before the hour mark when Thiago Silva headed in a cross from Stephan El Shaarawy.

Juventus, who had drawn 1-1 in a bad-tempered clash with Milan last weekend, went ahead against mid-table Chievo after 18 minutes thanks to Paolo De Ceglie, despite the left-back appearing to be in an offside position.

But Chievo stunned the Turin giants with a 76th-minute equaliser through Boukary Drame, who found the target following a mazy dribble from Davide Moscardelli.

Sunday sees the Rome derby between Roma and Lazio.

Lazio, who won the season’s first derby right at the death, will expect to bag full points as they chase down the top two — they are currently level on 45 points with third-placed Udinese, who take on Atalanta.

But Roma, blowing hot and cold under Luis Enrique, can overhaul Napoli and move into fifth with a win.

The Neapolitans, likely to rest several key names ahead of their potentially season-defining Champions League visit to Chelsea, host Parma looking to cut the five-point gap on Lazio.

Meanwhile, embattled Inter Milan coach Claudion Ranieri denied on Saturday that he was living on borrowed time as his side prepared to end a dreadful run of seven defeats and a draw by beating Catania on Sunday.

“I don’t see the game against Catania as my last chance,” former Chelsea and Roma coach Ranieri insisted.

“The club has total confidence in me. I am determined. I don’t feel I am under the microscope as the situation was more critical when I arrived than it is now.”

The Nerazzurri’s poor run has seen them eliminated from the Italian Cup and slide to seventh in Serie A, nine points off a Champions League qualifying berth.

They also have to overturn a 1-0 deficit in their March 13 last-16 Champions League second-leg clash with Marseille — which could in itself comprise the real last chance for Ranieri.

Ranieri added he would likely leave out Dutch star Wesley Sneijder, who is struggling to find his form, against Catania.

“It’s not accurate to say Sneijder is a problem — but he is not having his best year and you have to deal with that in a certain way,” Ranieri explained.

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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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