LYON, France — Portugal will hold its breath until the last minute hoping its best player at the European Championship will be fit for its semifinal showdown against Wales.
No, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the cause for concern.
The fuss is about whether central defender Pepe, who has been key to Portugal’s place in the final four, will be fit to face Gareth Bale and his Wales teammates on Wednesday at the Stade de Lyon.
Portugal coach Fernando Santos said on Tuesday that a decision would be made on match day, based on the state of Pepe’s recovery from a thigh muscle injury.
“We will make our decision tomorrow. I won’t be rushed into it, so I am sure you will be rolling in your beds tonight unable to sleep,” Santos said through a translator. “I will sleep quietly, because I have other players who can play. If Pepe is 100 percent, I will think about it so he can be in the starting 11.”
Pepe missed training on Monday and trained separately from his teammates at their tournament base near Paris on Tuesday before traveling to Lyon.
While Portugal has been able to turn to Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and 18-year-old Renato Sanches to get the goals that Ronaldo has yet to consistently produce, its defensive stability has pretty much hinged on Pepe.
The Real Madrid defender has played every minute of his team’s five matches, providing reliability in a backline that has been undermined by injury and inconsistent play. He has collected only one yellow card, committed just four fouls - while receiving 10, in 510 minutes.
Santos dropped fellow center back Ricardo Carvalho following a 3-3 draw with Hungary in the third group match, giving Jose Fonte the job. If Pepe is unavailable, Carvalho would likely be back in alongside Fonte.
Santos has also switched between Cedric Soares and Vierinha at right back and Eliseu and Raphael Guerreiro at left back.
Regardless of who’s playing, Portugal’s backs have struggled to keep up with opposing wingers. Pepe, however, has been there to make last-gasp clearances and to shield goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
Bale and Wales’ attackers will no doubt be aiming to follow the same route.
Portugal will already have to cope without holding midfielder William Carvalho, who has played well, due to suspension.
“We think it is going to be a battle,” Fonte said. “We are prepared for this and have done our best to play our game tomorrow.”