FARO (Portugal) • Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic had warned that a slump in form was to be expected, but despite the international retirements of stalwarts Danijel Subasic and Mario Mandzukic, the World Cup finalists showed they are still a tough nut to crack after a 1-1 draw against the European champions Portugal on Thursday.
Brazilian-born defender Pepe celebrated his 100th cap for Portugal by heading in the equaliser after Croatia had opened the scoring with their first goal against the Portuguese in four meetings.
Croatia took the lead in the 18th minute when forward Ivan Perisic, one of five members of their starting line-up who played in the World Cup final against France, volleyed home a loose ball after it had ricocheted around the Portuguese box.
Pepe, however, levelled 14 minutes later with a thumping header from Pizzi's cross.
Portugal had opted not to call up all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, still adapting to his €100 million (S$160 million) move from Real Madrid to Juventus, for the friendly, with coach Fernando Santos saying that he needed more rest.
Santos instead used the opportunity to tinker with his side, with Sergio Oliveira and Sao Tome-born Gedson Fernandes winning their first caps after coming on as second-half substitutes.
But it was veteran Pepe, wearing the captain's armband, who led his side out with distinction and, afterwards, he expressed his gratitude to his adopted country.
"We played well with a lot of young players trying to show their value," Pepe, 35, told Portugal's RTP TV. "I'm extremely happy. I'm grateful for the opportunity and everything Portugal has given me and I try to enjoy every moment."
A lively Portugal dominated the second half and nearly won the game when Mario Rui's low cross was deflected onto the foot of the post by Croatia's Antonio Milic.
There was also a moment of class from the home fans, with World Cup Golden Ball winner Luka Modric applauded off the field after his second-half substitution.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS