SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) Portugal defender Pepe is fit and ready for another duel with France’s top forward Antoine Griezmann on the European Championship final on Sunday.
“I feel great. I’m fully fit and can be chosen to play,” Pepe said at a news conference on Saturday at the Stade de France.
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The tough Real Madrid defender sat out a 2-0 win in the semifinals against Wales because of a thigh muscle injury.
The decision paid off for coach Fernando Santos not to risk his defensive leader against a Welsh attack that lacked the options France possesses.
Griezmann is the clearest danger to Portugal, with his six-goal tally at Euro 2016 double that of any player, including Cristiano Ronaldo, who has three.
Pepe and Ronaldo already got the better of Griezmann in a major final six weeks ago, when their Real Madrid team beat city rival Atletico in the Champions League final. Ronaldo scored the decisive penalty in a shootout after a 1-1 draw, and Griezmann missed a spot-kick when Atletico trailed 1-0 in the second half.
“I’ve played against Griezmann several times in Spain,” Pepe said through a translator. “He’s not very tall, but he’s very good at figuring out where the ball might be. It’s important not to focus on one player, but France as a team.”
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Though Pepe has two Champions League titles with Madrid, he acknowledged that Sunday’s game is the most important of his career.
“Yes, because I’m representing my people, my country. We want to write our names in history,” the 33-year-old defender said.
Portugal seemed far away from the final when failing to win a group-stage game, and trailed three times against Hungary before salvaging a third straight draw.
Santos then began selecting Southampton defenders Jose Fonte and Cedric Soares, leaving Pepe to lead a reshaped line that helped Portugal win tightly-contested knockout games against Croatia and Poland.
This rugged, hard-to-beat style recalls Greece’s surprise run to win Euro 2004 and beat the more attacking host Portuguese team in the final. Now Portugal is in a reversed role against a more flamboyant French side.
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“I would like that,” Pepe said when asked if history could repeat itself. “That would be amazing but one thing has nothing to do with another. Twelve years have gone by and tomorrow is a totally different thing.”
Pepe has seemed on his best behavior at Euro 2016, cutting out the hard fouls that helped make his reputation and the play-acting simulation that angered many watchers of the recent Champions League final.
The referee that May night in Milan, Mark Clattenburg of England, will have the whistle again on Sunday.
“I think this referee may be among the best two or three referees in the world,” Pepe said. “It’s recognition of his work and his quality as a professional referee. I hope everyone has an easy night and that they can work peacefully.”