World Cup finalists Croatia were pegged back by Pepe’s header on his 100th international appearance as they drew 1-1 with a Portugal side minus the services of Cristiano Ronaldo at the Estadio Algarve.
Ivan Perisic gave the visitors an 18th-minute lead in the friendly fixture, lashing in a first-time shot with his right foot after a deflected clearance had run perfectly into his path.
Croatia had rarely threatened prior to the opener but the Inter winger benefited from a lucky break to fire home after Portugal had carelessly given away possession inside their own half.
Despite the absence of the talismanic Ronaldo – who asked national boss Fernando Santos to be rested from national duty at the start of September – Portugal levelled before the break.
Defender Pepe celebrated his landmark game by climbing highest to meet Pizzi’s cross from Portugal’s right flank with a powerful header that left Lovre Kalinic – picked to replace the retired Danijel Subasic in goal – rooted to the spot.
Croatia’s goalkeeper had earlier kept out attempts from Bruma and Bernardo Silva as the hosts made a lively start, on both occasions getting down low to prevent Portugal from opening the scoring.
However, Kalinic needed the help of the woodwork to avoid conceding again in the closing minutes, Antonio Milic turning a low cross from Mario Rui onto his own post before watching on as the ball deflected away to safety.
Perisic had sent a header straight at Rui Patricio soon after the break, yet the second half failed to catch fire, a raft of substitutions by both teams consistently interrupting the flow of the game.
What does it mean: Portugal can prosper without Ronaldo
While their World Cup campaign ended disappointingly in defeat to Uruguay at the last-16 stage, Portugal must forget about the past and move on. The signs are promising too, with the returning Ruben Neves – left out of the 23-man squad for Russia – and the lively Bruma impressing. While Ronaldo will always be the focal point for the team when available, there are others emerging who can help pick up the slack when the forward returns to the fold
Pat on the back: Kalinic shows Croatia are in safe hands
The departure of the experienced Subasic – who played his last game for Croatia in the 4-2 final defeat to France in Moscow – left a vacancy between the posts. Kalinic is by no means a rookie at 28, but his performance suggested Zlatko Dalic can be confident in his new keeper.
With Ronaldo absent, Silva had the opportunity to impress up top for the home team. Instead, the striker fluffed his audition to be stand-in for his country’s top scorer, horribly miscuing twice in the opening half when presented with shooting opportunities, the second of which led to audible groans from the home fans.
Portugal begin their Nations League campaign by hosting Italy on Monday, while Croatia are away to Spain in their opener in the new UEFA competition 24 hours later.