As his rocket of a shot ricocheted off Emiliano Insua and past a sprawling but helpless Thibaut Courtois, Pepe proceeded to run like a madman, tugging and kissing the Madrid badge emphatically as his teammates rushed to congratulate him.
The goal would set the tone for the night as a dominating Real Madrid put the sword to city rivals Atletico in the first leg of the Copa del Rey semi-finals. Pepe was again making headlines for all the right reasons, a recurring phenomenon this season.
After a disastrous end to last season, where Pepe seemed short in the tackle, especially during the Borussia Dortmund massacre where Robert Lewandowski ran him ragged, time seemed to be ticking on his Real Madrid future. Raphael Varane’s stunning performances last season, namely his taming of Lionel Messi in the Super Cup, seemed to be the death knell to Pepe’s starting hopes.
Varane was to be everything Pepe wasn’t. At 19 he showed maturity far beyond his years, he was blazing fast and his timing was impeccable. But perhaps most importantly he did not pose the risk that Pepe did – he wasn’t a hothead.
While Pepe has a reputation as a loose cannon, his talent was never in question. Even after the pressure surrounding his surprising €30m move to Madrid in the summer of 2007, he put in some sparkling performances including a man of the match effort in el Clasico. But things began to go sour, starting with the Getafe incident in 2009, where he inexplicably kicked out at Javier Casquero in a moment of pure insanity.
His actions earned him a 10-match ban and Pepe’s reputation as a dirty player reverberated around European football. The subsequent years would see Pepe’s reputation further deteriorate. The arrival of Jose Mourinho, coupled with Pep Guardiola’s success at Barcelona inadvertently lead to Pepe becoming known not for his heart and commitment, but for his dangerous play and lack of tact.
Each Clasico became a war, and Pepe was the lead commander. At times he was even punished undeservedly, his reputation preceding him – his controversial sending off in the 2011 Champions League semi-final proof of that.
Regardless, as Carlo Ancelotti took charge Pepe’s role was clearly up for grabs and most pundits had Varane circled in next to Sergio Ramos with Pepe playing a role off the bench and filling in when needed. But the 19-year-old Frenchman was still nursing a knee injury at the start of the season. Pepe saw his chance and hasn’t let up ever since.
This season, not only has Pepe been strong at the back, he’s become a leader as well, even getting among the goal scorers. His three goals in La Liga this season are already a career high with almost half the season still to go. In fact, in the wake of Ramos’ early disciplinary issues and inconsistent form, he’s become the most reliable fixture in Madrid’s backline.
Pepe was the man of the match against Osasuna earlier in the year in a vital 2-2 draw. Down to 10 men and two goals down after Ramos’ sending off, Pepe took charge, single handedly stamping out any Osasuna opportunities and even netting the equalizing goal from a header in the 80th minute.
A couple rounds later he was there again, this time in a tough away fixture at the Cornella-El Prat as Espanyol stifled the Madrid attack. Pepe lead from the back, and eventually popped up with what would turn out to be the game-winning header.
But perhaps it was last week’s performance that truly encompassed the growth in Pepe’s game. In a high profile fixture, a Madrid derby nonetheless, where tempers are always on edge, Pepe was able to be his usual physical self but with an added nuance and focus to his game – no easy task against Diego Costa, who is a real headache on the pitch.
He was also immense at the back – his last ditch recovery tackle on Adrian in the second-half preserved the clean sheet and brought about vociferous applause from the Bernabeu faithful.
Madrid’s defence has drawn massive praise in 2014. After appearing increasingly porous during the first half of the season, the New Year has brought about a level of consistency. Madrid have only allowed four goals in their last 11 games, with a streak of eight games in a row without conceding, and Pepe proved to be perhaps the most integral part of that setup.
It seems that at 30 and with the city, Coach and his teammates all supporting him, Pepe has turned over a new leaf, and that could only be good news for Madrid as they head towards the business end of the season.