United in the World Cup play-offs
There's a huge Sunday evening ahead for one Manchester United player who could feature in a 2022 World Cup play-off final.
Youngster Dylan Levitt is in the Wales squad that is set to take on Ukraine at the Cardiff City Stadium for a place in this winter's Qatar tournament (17:00 BST kick-off).
The Dragons are looking to qualify for the competition for the first time in 64 years, and their last participation kicks off our brief history of United’s involvement in the World Cup play-offs…
Jimmy Murphy was not present with the rest of the Manchester United side for our fateful return flight from Belgrade on 6 February 1958, as he’d just steered Wales to a 4-0 aggregate win over Israel in what was the first World Cup play-off. Wales had initially been eliminated from the 1958 competition, after finishing second in qualifying to Czechoslovakia. However, Israel had advanced from the Africa/Asia pool without playing a match due to several countries withdrawing through political reasons. Seeing this as unfair, FIFA hastily arranged a two-legged tie between the two countries and Wales would go on to reach the last eight in what is so far their only appearance at the finals.
The first involvement of a United player in the play-offs came 27 years later, as Gordon Strachan featured in Scotland’s 2-0 win over Australia at Glasgow's Hampden Park in November 1985. The Scots drew 0-0 down under two weeks later to secure a fourth-successive finals berth, but the real noteworthy thing about this two-legged fixture was the identity of the Scotland manager. With Jock Stein having tragically passed away during a qualifier between Scotland and Wales a couple of months earlier, Aberdeen boss and future United legend Alex Ferguson took over dugout duties, a role he would continue for the tournament in Mexico.
Roy Keane’s 2002 World Cup campaign would ultimately go down in infamy, with the United captain walking away from the Ireland camp on the eve of the tournament in Japan and South Korea, but the midfielder played a pivotal role in qualification. The Boys in Green impressively finished unbeaten in a diabolically difficult group containing Portugal and the Netherlands and, although the former pipped them to top spot, the mammoth tally of 24 points Mick McCarthy’s side racked up was enough for a winner-takes-all inter-confederational play-off with Iran. Although Keano would miss the 1-0 second-leg defeat in Tehran through injury, the damage had been done with a 2-0 victory at Lansdowne Road five days earlier and Ireland would eventually make it the round of 16, even without their talismanic skipper.
Ireland were on the wrong side of a hugely controversial decision eight years later, as the referee missed Thierry Henry’s handball in the build-up to William Gallas’s goal, which turned their play-off with France in Les Bleus' favour. Patrice Evra was on the winning side, while John O’Shea featured for Giovanni Trapattoni’s men. On the same night, Nani helped Portugal complete a 2-0 aggregate success over Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was an impressive achievement since Ronaldo missed both legs with an ankle injury, months after moving from United to Real Madrid. Former Reds assistant Carlos Queiroz was Portugal manager - the second of four times he's guided a side to the World Cup, after South Africa (2002) and before successive successful attempts with Iran in 2014 and 2018.
Ronaldo was back four years later and he came up trumps in a showdown with fellow superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scoring a hat-trick as Portugal beat Sweden to a place at the finals in Brazil, with then-Red Nani again involved in a 4-2 aggregate victory. Evra also returned to the play-off spotlight, as France overturned a two-goal deficit to dramatically defeat Ukraine, in a tie which also featured Paul Pogba – at Juventus between his two spells with United – and future Red Raphael Varane.
Sweden staged a shock success in the play-offs when a Jakob Johansson goal was enough to beat Italy over two legs and deny the Azzurri a place in the finals – the first occasion in which the four-time world champions had missed out on a World Cup place since 1958. Victor Lindelof, then in his debut season with United after joining from Benfica, played the full 180 minutes across the November 2017 tie, keeping Insigne, Immobile and co at bay. He was also a key protagonist in the dressing-room celebrations, joining forces with striker John Guidetti to shave off skipper Andreas Granqvist’s hair, after a promise made by the latter during the qualification campaign.
It has already been a year of mixed fortunes for our Reds who have competed in the play-off stage. In March, a Portugal group including Diogo Dalot, Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo secured a spot in this winter's Qatar finals following a 2-0 victory over North Macedonia in which Fernandes netted both goals. Young Red Hannibal and his Tunisia side were also triumphant in booking their place at the tournament, after a 1-0 aggregate win against Mali. On the same evening, Sweden, of Lindelof and Anthony Elanga, unfortunately couldn't repeat their aforementioned heroics, falling just short of a World Cup appearance as a result of a 2-0 defeat to Poland in their final. While on Wednesday evening, Scott McTominay's Scotland tasted defeat in their delayed semi-final with Ukraine, setting up a winner-takes-all showdown between the latter and Levitt's Wales on Sunday evening.