Thursday’s crunch Europa League clash between Porto and Rangers pits two of the competition’s most storied clubs together in what promises to be a fiercely contested encounter on the Iberian Peninsula.
At the heart of the battle, which will be shown exclusively live on BT Sport, an unmissable personal duel is set to take hold between two of the most combustible players in Europe in Rangers’ star striker Alfredo Morelos and Porto’s legendary centre-back Pepe.
Morelos, a Colombia team-mate of Porto midfielders Luis Díaz and Mateus Uribe, was the top scorer in this season’s Europa League qualifying phase with eight goals and has already scored in the group stage against Young Boys.
The prolific 23-year-old, dubbed El Bufalo by adoring Rangers’ supporters, has taken the Scottish Premiership by storm since a £1m transfer from Finnish club HJK Helsinki in June 2017.
Goalscoring exploits aside, Morelos’ spell at Ibrox has been marred by disciplinary issues.
The all-action marksman, who treads a fine line between unplayable and unpalatable, was dismissed a remarkable five times last season (although one was retrospectively rescinded).
Speaking after he was given his marching orders for elbowing Celtic captain Scott Brown in the face in an off-the-ball incident in the Old Firm derby, Rangers boss Steven Gerrard appeared to run out of excuses for his star striker.
“I’ve gone above and beyond – I've backed Alfredo more than enough and I can’t defend him anymore,” he said.
Despite then serving a four-match suspension, Morelos finished as the top scorer in the Scottish Premiership with 18 goals.
With able deputy Jermain Defoe waiting in the wings, there was a school of thought that the tempestuous hitman was incapable of channelling his aggression and that his antics were wearing thin with the Rangers hierarchy.
Morelos may have been the main culprit but the Gers received 12 red cards in total last season, prompting a change in the club’s internal handling of disciplinary issues.
Since then, he has only received four yellows in 19 matches this season and has yet to be sent off, repaying Gerrard’s decision to persist with him.
However, the biggest test of his new-found restraint will surely come against Porto when he faces off against veteran defender Pepe.
The wily former Real Madrid star, now 36, has won three Champions League trophies, five domestic titles and the 2016 European Championship with Portugal during an impressive 17-year career at the top level.
Yet for all those accolades, his reputation as one of football’s most notorious pantomime villains, a veritable master of the defensive dark arts, continues to precede him.
The most notable item on a long rap sheet is the ten-match ban he received for kicking Javi Casquero and then raking his studs down his back after conceding a penalty for a foul on the Getafe star during a La Liga clash in April 2009.
Pepe, who also slapped Juan Albin shortly afterwards for good measure, was seen shouting “You’re all sons of bitches!” as he took his leave from the pitch following the inevitable red card.
His worst excesses were on display most consistently in a succession of titanic el clásico tussles with Barcelona, with a malevolent stamp on Lionel Messi’s hand in 2012 standing out as the nadir.
Then there was his farcical all-round display of gamesmanship and play-acting in the 2016 Champions League final, which Real eventually won on penalties against bitter rivals Atletico Madrid.
Pepe’s antics in the San Siro showpiece famously drew a pair of exasperated tweets from BT Sport’s very own Gary Lineker that quickly went viral.
They also made an instant internet meme out of Mark Clattenburg’s ‘disapproving parent’ face (and tongue) after one embarrassingly transparent attempt to con the English referee following a clash with Yannick Carrasco.
Yet while his ability to drive opposition strikers to distraction is beyond question, a career record showing just six red cards in more than 550 appearances for club and country suggests he’s also a dab hand at avoiding being caught in the act.
It all makes for a tantalising night at Estádio do Dragão as Pepe looks to crawl under Morelos’ skin and light the fuse that has, for the most part, been concealed so far this season.
Even Gerrard admitted in the build-up that he understands the appeal of the prospective duel.
“Listen, if Alfredo is selected to play it will be a fascinating battle,” Gerrard said.
“Pepe has been a world-class player throughout his career, a very decorated individual who I have a lot of respect and admiration for.
“But Alfredo is in a good place, he is playing well, he is in good form and I’m sure he will be itching to start. I’m sure he will be looking forward to testing himself against the best.
“There will be a lot of really intriguing key battles across the pitch but I’m sure all eyes will be on that one.”
Rangers’ meeting with the two-time European champions, who reached last year’s Champions League quarter-finals, is arguably the club’s most important continental assignment since their barnstorming run to the UEFA Cup final in 2008.
But it also carries an extra layer of significance for Pepe, who remembers suffering at the hands of the Glaswegians during his first spell at Porto.
He scored twice in a pulsating Champions League group-stage clash at Ibrox in 2005 but still ended up on the losing side as Sotirios Kyrgiakos’ late goal gave the hosts all three points.
Ross McCormack’s leveller in the return meeting in Portugal then earnt Rangers a vital 1-1 draw that helped them advance to the last 16 at Porto’s expense.
Fourteen years on and with Rangers, Porto, Feyenoord and Young Boys all locked together on three points after two games in Europa League Group G, Pepe is desperate to get his own back on the Scottish giants.
“I have played against Rangers before and they’re never an easy rival,” he told the Daily Record.
“I remember the matches in 2005. I scored two goals in Scotland but still suffered a defeat.
“Now, I have the chance to change that and I’d accept a win, without a goal for myself!
“It will be an intense match and I think we’ll need to show patience.”
Morelos will need to show plenty of patience, too, if Pepe is up to his usual tricks.
Whether he can ignore the physical and psychological bait and focus instead on notching a remarkable tenth goal in Europe already this season remains to be seen.
But one thing’s for sure: an unmissable box-office battle – one that could explode at any moment - is in store on Thursday night, so strap in and enjoy the ride.
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