After Pique rant, Zidane praises 'respectful' Madrid players

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.

"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."

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

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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