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Madrid keeps focus on soccer as it heads to Catalonia

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MADRID (AP) Real Madrid is trying to keep the focus on soccer as it travels to Catalonia to play a Spanish league match this weekend.

Madrid faces Catalan club Girona on Sunday amid heightened tensions in the northeastern region, which is seeking independence from Spain.

The political crisis could reach its climax this weekend as the Spanish government is planning to take control of the autonomous region, while Catalan officials are threatening to unilaterally declare independence.

[ PL PREVIEW: Liverpool vs. Huddersfield Town ]

It will be Madrid’s first trip to Catalonia since the crisis escalated.

Madrid, seen as the club of the Spanish establishment, has reportedly taken precautions ahead of its trip, including not using its official team bus, but it has tried hard to distance itself from the political turmoil.

“We’ll play our game without thinking about anything else,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “I’m not going to ask the fans for anything. We’re thinking about the game. We hope it’s a good match and nothing more than that.”

He said players are not concerned about their safety during the trip to Girona, a city filled with pro-independence sentiment just north of Barcelona.

“We’re not worried about Catalonia because security will be as it always is,” Zidane said.

Reports in Spain said there was a possibility that the game could be called off because of the situation in Catalonia, but the club was not yet making and drastic changes to its travel plans.

“It’s a soccer match and we are convinced that nothing is going to happen,” Girona president Delfi Geli told local radio stadium COPE. “Real Madrid will be welcomed and respected. It’s a historic match for us. It’s the first time that Real Madrid will be playing in our stadium in the league.”

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A referendum organized by Catalan officials on Oct. 1 turned violent as Spanish authorities tried to halt it because the central government called it unconstitutional.

There have been large public demonstrations since then, but most were peaceful.

Madrid faced Catalan club Espanyol in Madrid on the day of the referendum, when the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium was packed with fans carrying Spanish flags and showing their support of a unified country.

Madrid rival Barcelona has been deeply involved in the Catalonia issue. It has publicly defended the region’s right to choose, but it did not openly advocate independence. A unilateral declaration of independence would create problems for the club because it wants to keep playing in the Spanish league.

Barcelona played its league match against Las Palmas without fans at the Camp Nou to protest against the Spanish government’s actions during the referendum. Pro-independence flags and chants have always been present at Camp Nou, and they have intensified in recent weeks.

There were no problems when Barcelona traveled to the Spanish capital to face Atletico Madrid a few weeks ago, although the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium was also filled with Spanish flags.

Barcelona leads the Spanish league with 25 points from nine matches, four points more than second-place Valencia. Defending champion Madrid is five points off the lead, and Atletico Madrid is further point behind. Girona, playing in the first division for the first time, is in 15th place with nine points.

Barcelona plays at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga

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Jonas nets 2 late goals to keep Benfica in title hunt

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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Jonas scored two late goals to lead Benfica’s 3-1 comeback win at Pacos Ferreira on Saturday, keeping it close to Portuguese league leader FC Porto.

Jonas equalized in the 72nd minute and gave the defending champion the lead in the 88th.

[ MORE: Man United-Chelsea meet in giant Sunday PL clash ]

Rafa Silva added a third goal after the host was reduced to 10 men in stoppage time when Gian dos Santos was shown a direct red card.

Luiz Phellype gave Pacos Ferreira the lead in the ninth.

The double increased Jonas’ league-leading tally to 27 goals.

Benfica moved to within two points of Porto before the pacesetter visits Portimonense on Sunday.

Sporting Lisbon is third at five points behind Porto. It hosts Moreirense on Monday.

Orlando City trades defender Jose Aja to Whitecaps for allocation money

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The Vancouver Whitecaps have struck a deal with an Eastern Conference side to help solidify their back line.

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On Saturday, the Cascadia club finalized a deal to acquire Orlando City defender Jose Aja in exchange for $125,000 in Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) for 2019.

Additionally, Orlando could receive another $100,000 in TAM if Aja remains on the Whitecaps roster next season and a 2021 second-round MLS SuperDraft pick if Aja is in Canada for the 2020 campaign.

Aja has made 25 appearances for Orlando since coming to MLS in 2016 from his native Uruguay.

The timing of the deal is intriguing, given Tim Parker’s willingness to exit the Whitecaps ahead of the 2018 MLS season.

PST reported on Thursday that Parker is seeking a move back to the East Coast, and the New York-native is being tracked by several Eastern Conference sides, including the New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and the Montreal Impact.

Parker is considered one of the top American defenders in MLS, and is actively seeking a massive pay raise ahead of the new season, after making just under $100,000 in 2017.

PL Sunday preview: Red Devils battle Chelsea at Old Trafford

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It will surely be one of the biggest fixtures of the season when Manchester United and Chelsea get together on Sunday, and for both clubs a victory could be vital in projecting their form for the rest of the 2017/18 campaign.

Meanwhile, a crucial meeting at Selhurst Park pits teams on opposite ends of the table against one another. Crystal Palace enters the weekend levels on points with 18th-place Swansea, while Tottenham could leap Chelsea for fourth if results go in favor of Spurs.

[ MORE: Liverpool continues to score at lightning pace against West Ham ]

Crystal Palace vs. Tottenham Hotspur — 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN

The injury bug has hit Palace hard as of late, with a total of 12 senior team players being left out of Roy Hodgson‘s squad. The list includes Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye and Mamadou Sakho, which won’t make things easy against a talented Spurs side.

Tottenham have had a ton of success in this fixture recently, winning the last five encounters and only allowing one goal in the process.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s men have hit the ground running in the second half of the season thus far, picking up a league-high 15 points in the Premier League since the start of 2018.

If there is a saving grace for the Eagles though, it is that Palace has been solid at home this season, and gone unbeaten in nine of its last 10 fixtures at Selhurst.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea — 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN

After a pair of draws from the PL sides kicked off their Champions League Round of 16 campaigns midweek, United and Chelsea can now focus their attention back to England; at least for the time being.

Jose Mourinho’s team came away from Seville with a crucial scoreless draw after the hosts tested goalkeeper David De Gea on numerous occasions, while Chelsea were close to pulling out a victory against Barcelona had it not been for a big-time mistake from Andreas Christensen late in the match.

Nonetheless, this is a fixture that always garners significant attention, especially from the Blues, who tend to have a better go of it. United has won just once against Chelsea in their last 14 fixtures, with the lone victory coming last season.

That said, Antonio Conte and his side have failed to exemplify consistency this year, and that includes road matches. The Blues have just two road wins in their last nine attempts across all competitions, which bodes well for the Red Devils.

The good news for Chelsea is the recent form of attacking duo Willian and Eden Hazard. The Brazilian was constantly in dangerous positions up the pitch against the Blaugrana in their recent UCL encounter, nabbing the lone goal for the Blues, while Hazard has scored six times in his last six PL matches.

The 2 Robbies: Unstoppable Liverpool, Man United-Chelsea and more

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In today’s episode, Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe discuss Liverpool’s emphatic win over West Ham (0:17), breakdown an extremely complicated relegation situation where nearly half of the league is in jeopardy of going down (10:05), before closing the show with a preview of tomorrow’s Man United v. Chelsea match (28:10).

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

All of the The 2 Robbies content can be accessed by clicking on this link:

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