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Portugal Confident Ahead Of North Macedonia Playoff But Wary Of Catastrophic Upset

Ronaldo is thrilled that Pepe's returning to the heart of Portugal's defense.

PORTO, Portugal - Cristiano Ronaldo is excited about the return of experienced defender Pepe to the Portugal squad after he missed Thursday's 3-1 win over Turkey due to COVID-19.

"The king is back! Pepe is back in the house! Look out!" a smiling Ronaldo shouted before Portugal's training session on a warm and sunny Sunday morning in Porto as the 39-year-old defender emerged from the dressing room.

They laughed and hugged before beginning the warm-up side by side, in the penultimate training session before the World Cup qualifying playoff against North Macedonia on Tuesday for a place in this year's tournament in Qatar.

Ronaldo's mood reflected the general feeling among the squad as they prepare to host North Macedonia, who shocked Italy 1-0 in their playoff semifinal to deprive Portugal fans of a highly anticipated clash between the last two European champions.

"Won't lie to you: we were all expecting it was going to be Italy," midfielder João Moutinho told a news conference. "Football is different nowadays, every team can win at this level, doesn't matter the names, numbers or stats. North Macedonia have an extraordinary core and will do their best to make our life miserable on Tuesday."

Manchester City forward Bernardo Silva said they felt no extra pressure playing a supposedly weaker team.

"North Macedonia won four of their last five World Cup qualifying matches as a visitor, two of them against giants like Germany and Italy, that says a lot," Bernardo told reporters on Sunday. "They are an aggressive team, they will pressure us and will come with a lot of confidence. But the pressure at us always existed because it is not about the rival, it's about going to the World Cup. We have to be at Qatar and can't let our fans down."

Portugal have prepared thoroughly as usual.

"You eat well, sleep well and stay focused," Bernardo said. "Our team is full of experienced players that are used to playing decisive matches for the biggest clubs in Europe. We all know how those games work and we have to work hard and stay focus in our objective that is going to Qatar."

(Reporting by Fernando Kallas, editing by Ed Osmond)

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