MADRID Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane is hoping veteran defender Pepe extends his stay with the European champions although he believes the Portuguese has earned the right to decide his own future.
Pepe is in his 10th season with Real but is reportedly stalling on talks about a new contract beyond his current deal which expires at the end of June, because of an offer to move to Chinese Super League outfit Hebei China Fortune.
The 33-year-old defender is set to make his comeback after six weeks out due to injury when the La Liga leaders visit Celta Vigo on Sunday seeking revenge for their King's Cup elimination at the hands of the Galicians last month.
"Of course, I want him to stay, he can stay at the club for as long as he wants. He's been a huge player to this squad, we'll see what happens in June but obviously I want him to stay," Zidane told a news conference on Saturday.
"He's back and he's better, he's been injured a lot this season but now he's recovered and happy. Pepe is only thinking about what he can do Real Madrid now. We'll see what happens in June but given what he has done for us over the years, we have to respect whatever he decides."
Pepe joined Real from Porto in 2007 and is the club's third most senior player behind Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, although his considerable achievements have on occasion been overshadowed by disciplinary lapses.
He earned the longest ever suspension in the history of Spanish soccer when he was banned for 10 games for kicking Getafe player Javier Casquero in the head in 2009, and was sent off in a Champions League semi-final first leg with Barcelona in 2011, which the Catalans ended up winning 2-0.
Real are still without Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal for the game at Celta while Toni Kroos is suspended. Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo is expected to field an under-strength side in order to prepare for Wednesday's King's Cup semi-final second leg at Alaves.
Zidane, however, said he did not think that handed any advantage to his side as they seek to maintain a four-point gap over title rivals Sevilla and Barcelona.
"If we think that's an advantage we'll be making a mistake, it's an important game for us as well as them," he said.
"Celta's squad is good, just like ours, and we're going to focus on how we respond."
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Ed Osmond)