It was far from smooth sailing but Portugal booked their place in the last 16 of the World Cup with an ultimately nail-biting 1-1 draw with Iran. A tricky tie against Uruguay awaits them after another team performance that did not hit the high notes, although there were some individual displays to praise.
The decision to introduce Adrien Silva into midfield proved an effective one, reuniting him with his former Sporting clubmate William Carvalho, who also produced a highly competent display. However the man of the match honours go to a veteran of the Seleção who once again proved just how essential he is to this team. Centre-back Pepe stopped almost everything that came his way alongside José Fonte at the heart of defence.
At the age of 35, Beşiktaş’ Pepe is perhaps on the decline in his glittering personal career, as evidenced by a few fitness issues over the past few years. But Monday’s draw with Iran, as well as his stellar Euro 2016 performances, show a player that still has plenty to offer on the international stage. His partnership with Fonte at this World Cup started a little shakily in a testing opener against Spain, but has steadily improved since. A clean sheet against Morocco followed, and another would have been gained yesterday were it not for a highly-contentious penalty decision late in the game.
Pepe’s well-known love of theatrics makes him one of the most divisive players in the game, and there were certainly a few instances of this on display in what became an extremely scrappy and sour-tasting encounter, particularly in the second half.
But his defensive positioning and anticipation were largely outstanding, making a number of key interventions as the impressive Iran put considerable pressure on Fernando Santos’ side. Winning everything in the air, Pepe also made a miraculous sliding interception from a low cross in the second half that almost certainly prevented an earlier Iran equaliser.
Pepe’s said dramatics have earned a lot of criticism from pundits attending the tournament, which is a pity as it detracts from his outstanding abilities as a defender but also as a leader.
Arguably going into this tournament Portugal were weaker than ever in the centre-back position, with Pepe himself not 100% fit and accompanied by the out-of-form and aging Fonte and Bruno Alves, as well as Benfica rookie Rúben Dias. As a result Pepe’s importance to this side is magnified considerably and he has excelled in shaking off his injury problems to lead from the back while skipper Cristiano Ronaldo leads from the front.
Portugal's concession of a late equaliser to Iran, coupled with Spain scoring a late leveller of their own against Morocco, sees them qualify for the last 16 in 2nd place. This results in what is sure to be a bruising and testing encounter with Uruguay on Saturday night. Pepe will of course lock horns with his fellow master of the dark arts Luis Suárez, and keeping his cool and composure will be absolutely vital if the Seleção are to book a quarter-final spot against either France or Argentina.
by Jamie Farr