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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.

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“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.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni

Leicester City record massive earnings from UEFA Champions League

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Leicester City’s UEFA Champions League campaign may have ended without a trophy, but the Premier League side pipped the European champions in the bank account.

UEFA announced on Friday that Leicester City earned $96,167,125 during the Champions League run that ended in the quarterfinals, the farthest of any Premier League club. Real Madrid, the back-to-back champions, earned a slightly less $95,385,679. Much of the difference comes from TV rights deals in England, which pays out more to teams compared to the TV rights deal in Spain.

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Juventus, the Italian giant, earned the most of any club in last year’s Champions League, making a whopping $129,965,357, mostly thanks to the TV rights again.

Mourinho: Ibrahimovic could return in December

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Dare to Zlatan? It could be only a couple of months away.

That’s according to Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who said the veteran striker could return from his torn ACL before the end of the calendar year.

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“Zlatan is here, he’s working here and under our control,” Mourinho told reporters. “He’s working as you would expect so, so, so hard. But he’s not to be back in the next week or next couple of weeks. Do I believe he’ll be back in 2017? Yes, I do. But it’s just a feeling.”

The big Swede scored 28 goals for Man United last year in all competitions, proving that he’s still got it at the age of 36, but it’s going to be tough for him to find his old form coming off an ACL injury at such an old age. After suffering the injury last April, it’s been a long road to recovery for Ibrahimovic.

However, with the play of Romelu Lukaku up top, Ibrahimovic would only play from time to time, which could help in his recovery both from the knee injury and just the general recovery between games.

Manchester City quartet called up by Brazil for friendlies

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Brazilian National Team coach Tite has decided on calling up a full-strength squad for November’s upcoming friendly matches in Europe, including four Manchester City players in his 25-man squad.

Gabriel Jesus, Fernandinho, Danilo and Ederson all made the squad as Tite looks to develop more chemistry among his side ahead of the 2018 World Cup, which Brazil breezed into after Tite took over in 2016.

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Luckily for Manchester City and the other European-based players in the squad, Brazil’s friendly matches will be played in Western Europe. The Selecao first faces Japan in Lille, France on November 10 before taking on England at Wembley Stadium on November 14.

The call-ups may be a tough pill for Guardiola to swallow though. As of Friday, Manchester City has 17 games remaining in the calendar year, and surely he would prefer for some of his starters to get a two-week break in November to preserve some energy instead of play in friendly matches.

Everton announce lifetime ban for fan involved in altercation with Lyon player

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On a night when UEFA unveiled a new campaign for respect, there wasn’t enough of it shown both on and off the field.

Everton has followed up on UEFA opening up disciplinary proceedings against them by banning a fan from Everton matches after the fan was seen to punch at an Olympique Lyon player in the second half of Lyon’s 2-1 win at Goodison Park.

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“Club Officials have reviewed the footage of an incident that occurred in the 64th minute of the game against Olympique Lyonnais where supporters towards the front of the lower Gwladys Street End became involved in a confrontation between players,” Everton said in a statement. “We have identified one individual whom action will now be taken against. This will include a ban from attending future Everton fixtures and the Club registering a formal complaint with Merseyside Police.”

The video below shows a fan – amazingly, holding onto a small boy in one arm – throwing some punches at Lyon players after a fracas on the field.

The punch and ban is yet another dark moment for Everton, which has just one point from its first three Europa League matches and sits in 16th place in the Premier League with eight points from eight games.