From the moment Portugal manager Fernando Santos delivered his one-word description of Pepe, the headlines had surely already been written.
“A monster,” he said, of football’s favourite pantomime villain who, at 39, will return to the Portugal team against Uruguay tonight with the job of containing another of football’s most combustible players – a certain Uruguayan striker by the name of Luis Suarez.
“The Cannibal of Ajax” was how Suarez was described in the Netherlands even before his teeth had sunk into Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup. Pepe’s unexpected opportunity has followed Portugal’s shock loss of Danilo Pereira after scans revealed that pain around the Paris St-Germain defender’s chest was in fact a result of three separate rib fractures.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that makes all of us sad,” said the Portugal and Manchester City midfielder Bernardo Silva. “It is also an additional driver for all the team to play to win and dedicate this win against Uruguay to Danilo. He’s not only a great player but a fantastic person.”
Santos said that the cause of Pereira’s injury was “unexplained” and that the fractures had been found following tests on his breathing. “After, we saw it was more serious than expected,” he said. “We are following it up. I’m not a magical doctor. As far as I know he is evolving positively and we expect to have him very soon in the field of play. We cannot cry over spilt milk.”
Asked then for an assessment of Pepe, and his readiness to come into the team for what will be his 130th cap, Santos said: “He’s a monster. A monster. That’s the answer to that question.” Pepe’s trophy-laden decade at Real Madrid came to an end in 2017, but he has since been rejuvenated at Porto and added a further two Portuguese league titles, most recently earlier this year. His span of league titles in Portugal with Porto now stands at 16 years following his first Primeira Liga title in 2005-6. Pepe actually scored against Uruguay at the last World Cup, when an Edinson Cavani double ended Portugal’s hopes at the last-16 stage in Sochi.
The Portugal team have evolved and improved considerably since, with Bruno Fernandes, Joao Cancelo, Ruben Neves and Ruben Dias emerging, as well as potential new attacking options alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. Two 23-year-olds, Joao Felix and Rafael Leao, were among the goalscorers against Ghana on Thursday and Santos said that it was possible for any of his young attackers to start.
“We did not come with a label saying, ‘this number one, number two, number three’,” he said. “Our players need to play according to the game. The match will decide which player will line up. We have choices, and in our team, there are no players who will be excluded.” The message from the Uruguay camp is clear: more pace required. Their opening stalemate against South Korea, like so many of the first group stage games, felt more like the final warm-up friendly before a World Cup.
“We need to change our play with the ball,” said midfielder Rodrigo Bentancur. “We were a bit slow when building up and weren’t able to break enough with the midfielders or with strikers.”
“We need to improve speed, build-up and make the most of our strong points either on the flanks or in the middle,” added manager Diego Alonso. “We want to have more dynamism with the ball. Sometimes, if you are slow, you won’t have enough chances.”
It is hard to see Suarez as the solution to their lethargy. Back with his boyhood team Nacional via a free transfer from Atletico Madrid, his performance was notably muted at Education City Stadium, an afternoon’s work which included eight passes, two touches in the opposition box, no shots and no chances created. After 64 minutes, he was substituted, with his second-half action limited to receiving a throw-in and taking kick-off.
On that evidence, this is a World Cup too far for arguably the most talented Uruguayan footballer ever. Asked a pointed question about whether there were any untouchables in his team, Alvarez said: “No, there are not. In the 11 months I’ve been working I showed that the players I pick are the ones who are fit and play in the best condition.
“This is a decision I take together with my technical staff. Of course, I can also make mistakes and I will say this humbly, if I make a mistake I don’t have any trouble accepting that. I did that in the game against Korea because we realised we didn’t have the best performance.”
The question is who would come in to replace Suarez. Darwin Nunez started against Korea but played wide left rather than the more central position he occupies for Liverpool. The other option is to play the man who replaced Suarez against Uruguay, although, at 35, Cavani also lacks the pace to terrify a fearsome opponent in Pepe.