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After Pique rant, Zidane praises ‘respectful’ Madrid players

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MADRID (AP) Others can worry about the referees. Zinedine Zidane is only worried about the soccer.

The Real Madrid coach praised his players for respecting match officials after Barcelona defender Gerard Pique criticized them, saying he keeps his team focused on the game.

“I don’t talk about the referees and neither do my players,” Zidane said Tuesday. “We respect the referees. I have a spectacular locker room in that sense. The players are only focused on what they have to do on the field.

[ MORE: Man City looks to avoid upset ]

“The message I have is that I’m very proud of my players because they are very respectful of match officials. And I’m behind them.”

Zidane’s comments came a day before both teams play important matches in a tight race for the Spanish league title.

After a controversial penalty awarded to Madrid in the team’s 3-2 win over Villarreal on Sunday, Pique hinted on social media that Madrid was being benefited. He posted stories mentioning refereeing mistakes that went against Barcelona and others that favored Madrid.

Villarreal president Fernando Roig also complained after the match, saying he didn’t like that the officiating crew left the stadium carrying Real Madrid bags with small gifts such as key chains, pins and pens.

“Anybody can say what they want. We achieve our success on the field,” Zidane said. “I won’t get into what a player or a club president said. Nobody can stop people from saying what they want. What matters to me are my players, and they are an example, they are respectful and professional. It’s always been like this in Madrid.”

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Madrid captain Sergio Ramos said Monday that the criticism against Madrid was expected from someone like Pique, who is constantly on social media expressing his opinions.

Barcelona coach Luis Enrique tried to stay away from the controversy.

“I have nothing to say about it,” he said Tuesday. “You already know my opinion and I’m not going to change it.”

Luis Enrique has defended referees in the past, saying they have a difficult job and that players should help by not criticizing them.

Madrid’s controversial win on Sunday left the club one point ahead of Barcelona going into its home game against 12th-place Las Palmas on Wednesday. Seeking its first league title since 2012, Madrid still has a game in hand, at Celta Vigo.

Two-time defending champion Barcelona stayed close by defeating Atletico Madrid 2-1 with a late winner by Lionel Messi at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Sunday. The team will try to win its fifth in a row in the league when it hosts relegation-threatened Sporting Gijon on Wednesday.

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At long last, Butland returns to full training with Stoke

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Stoke City’s long-coming goalkeeping dilemma will come to a head soon, as Jack Butland is back in training.

A year ago today, the Potters confirmed that star backstop Butland would miss EURO 2016 with a broken ankle. He’d need multiple surgeries as recovery dragged on and on.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

That was more palatable thanks to the play of Lee Grant, who arrived on loan from Derby County but became a permanent Potter in January. Grant has been a key part of Stoke’s season.

Butland is contracted to Stoke through 2021, and he’ll ascend to the starting gig sooner rather than later. But Grant is in the catbird seat for now, and at least will have made himself attractive to other clubs seeking a keeper.

Report: Everton linked with $4 million swoop for Canada’s Larin

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The Sun only hits on a few of the many transfer rumors it tosses around, but this one bears a second look for fans of Everton, MLS, and Canada.

Everton is already eyeing replacements for Romelu Lukaku, according to the report, and is hunting for a bargain in Canadian national teamer Cyle Larin.

Larin, 21, was the first overall pick in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC after an electric career at UConn.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He’s since scored 35 goals in 63 matches for the Lions, picking up three in his first two matches of the 2017 season. The 6-foot-1 Ontario native has five goals for Canada in 19 caps.

The Sun says Larin would cost close to $4 million, a fraction of what the Toffees will get if they sell Lukaku.

Fan dies after falling off football stadium in Brazil

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SAO PAULO (AP) A Brazilian football fan has died after falling 25 meters from the top of Morumbi Stadium in Sao Paulo onto a parking lot.

The height is equivalent to an eight-story building.

Bruno Pereira da Silva, aged 23, suffered head injuries and died upon arrival at a local hospital on Sunday.

[ MORE: Complete Panama-USMNT preview ]

He and other fans were attempting to jump to a section of the stadium where they could get a better view of the Sao Paulo state championship match between Sao Paulo and archrival Corinthians. The game ended 1-1.

Friends of da Silva told Brazilian media Silva was attending his first football match.

CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers: CRC, Honduras get off the mat

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The two traditional CONCACAF powers are riding high following Friday’s round of World Cup qualifiers, while the two other sides to qualify for Brazil 2014 are licking their wounds.

Honduras and Costa Rica both found themselves on the wrong side of shutout losses to the United States and Mexico, while Trinidad and Tobago injected itself into the discussion with a home win over Panama.

[ WATCH: CONCACAF qualifiers on Telemundo ]

What’s cooking for Tuesday? Read on:

Honduras vs. Costa Rica — 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Two sides which love to play physical, on-the-edge soccer meet on the heels of Friday losses. Expect Jorge Luis Pinto’s Catrachos to adapt after a 6-0 beatdown at the hands of the U.S., but they’ll have to do much, much better at home.

The dates at Estadio Morazan have to be the key for Honduras to climb into the Top Three, and it’ll be buoyed by memories of its 3-1 win over T&T two rounds ago. As for Costa Rica, Los Ticos aim to respond from conceding their first two goals of the Hex.

Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico — 7 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Kevin Molino’s strike gave T&T its first three points of qualifying, but its odds of getting a result against visiting Mexico aren’t nearly as good. The Soca Warriors desperation will be easy to see, as June’s qualifiers include trips to the U.S. and Costa Rica.

El Tri now has wins in two of its trickier Hex matches after adding Friday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica to its upset of the Yanks in Columbus. Ten points through four matches would be exemplary; A draw or loss leaves the door open for Costa Rica to summit the Hex table.

United States vs. Panama — 10:05 p.m. EDT Tuesday

Read our extensive preview here, but the upshot is this: The United States can rise into the Top Three by beating Panama, while Los Canaleros will be happy to scoop a draw to stem any bleeding cause by Molino and T&T.