Real Madrid back line is still spearheaded by Portugese defender Pepe, who is yet to shed his bruiser reputation and should duel once again with Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski in their Uefa Champions League match on Tuesday, writes Ian Hawkey.
Pepe brings intimidation factor to Real Madrid defence
According to Robert Lewandowski, the Borussia Dortmund striker, at one moment towards the end of last season’s Uefa Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid, his marker, Pepe, turned to him as they jostled in preparation for a Dortmund corner and asked: “Don’t think you’ve scored enough goals already?”
Lewandowski had registered all four in a 4-1 win. As it turned out, they were only just enough, with Madrid winning 2-0 in the second leg in Spain.
The tables are turned a year later, as Madrid take a 3-0 advantage into the Westfalenstadium on Tuesday night for the return 90 minutes of this year’s quarter-final.
Lewandowski, suspended for the match in Spain seven days ago, can expect to hear Pepe’s voice in his earhole again – the defender is known by opponents as being a natterer, not all of whom report him to be as jokey as Lewandowski says he was last April – but must expect their duel to be more balanced.
In the 4-1 Borussia victory, the Polish striker tormented the Portugal international centre-back, beating him to crosses, outpacing him, sharper in his anticipations and movements. This season, Pepe has been harder for most top strikers to overcome.
Lately, Pepe has even borne a convincing resemblance to the player Cristiano Ronaldo, the Madrid striker, once described as the “best central defender in the world”.
That label always seemed an exaggeration. Even at his most imposing, dominant in the air and canny with his interceptions, assessments of Pepe must be weighed up against his questionable temperament, those rash moments that draw regular cards from referees, or concede fouls in dangerous positions.
A degree of intimidation has always been part of his game and it can be an effective tool for the central defender. Yet Pepe has often overdone it.
The story was put about after last month’s 4-3 away win over Madrid by Barcelona in the Primera Liga that Pepe had chirped at Lionel Messi during the match: “I know you’re scared of me.”
Messi reportedly replied: “Of you? Look at the photographs from every time I play against you. You’re always in the background while I’m about to score.”
Anecdotal or not, Madrid’s confrontations with Barcelona cast Pepe easily as the pantomime villain of Spanish football’s most famous rivalry.
Carlos Queiroz, the former head coach of Portugal, once compared Pepe, with whom he developed a difficult relationship towards the end of Queiroz’s stint in the job, to “a bad extra in a Brazilian soap opera”.
This was a barb that seemed intended to strike not just at the caricature ruffian he resembled when, for instance, TV cameras spotted him treading on the hand of Messi – as he did in 2012 – but also the sensitivities around his international status.
Pepe was born and grew up in Brazil, and there were Portuguese who objected to his being fast-tracked into their national squad, for whom he now has more than 50 caps.
A bruiser reputation is hard to shake off and Pepe will probably always be associated with the grotesque, enraged assault he made five years ago on an opponent from Getafe, Javi Casquero.
He was banned for 10 matches as a result. In the three seasons he played under Jose Mourinho at Madrid, the hard-man Pepe was also to the fore.
In contests against Barcelona, he was a weapon rattled in the face of Messi. Mourinho sometimes thrust him into central midfield, sacrificing creativity there in favour of confrontation.
In a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona two years ago, he was sent off for a studs-up lunge at Dani Alves.
The Pepe hoping to steer his club into a fourth successive such semi-final by the end of tonight appears less edgy, a classier, more-composed defender.
He has had perhaps the best of his seven seasons at Madrid, his steadiness a reflection of the calmer management style of Carlo Ancelotti, the coach who succeeded Mourinho last summer.
Ancelotti knows where Pepe is best deployed and has not asked him to do shifts as a midfield bouncer.
He has, though, encouraged him to use his powerful leap and his heading ability more productively at attacking set pieces.
Saturday’s goal in the 4-1 win against Real Sociedad was his fifth of the season, well up on his usual scoring ratio.
Against Lewandowski tonight, Pepe will be tested, but the Pole goes into this joust with his talkative marker as the underdog.
Lewandowski says Dortmund can overturn first-leg defeat
Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski says his side can pull off the seemingly impossible and overturn a 3-0 first-leg defeat to win their Uefa Champions League quarter-final with Real Madrid on Tuesday night.
The Poland striker, who missed the match at the Bernabeu through suspension, is looking for a repeat of his heroics from last season’s semi-final when he scored four times in a 4-1 first-leg win over the same opponents.
“We need to write history again,” Lewandowski said.
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