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Robin van Persie battles with Maxi Rodriguez in the 2014 World Cup final

United's first five World Cup semi-finalists

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The 2018 FIFA World Cup is in its concluding week, and as many as seven Manchester United players could appear in Tuesday and Wednesday’s semi-finals.

Playing in the competition's penultimate round is an achievement that has been enjoyed by just five Manchester United stars in the past – and only two of them progressed to the final.
 
As Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and the English quartet of Phil Jones, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Ashley Young bid to change that, we run through the quintet of Reds who have come within one game of the biggest match in world football…
 
BOBBY CHARLTON (England v Portugal, 1966)
 
Where else to start but with Sir Bobby – a man synonymous with both Manchester United and the World Cup? He scored the opening goal of England’s legendary 1966 World Cup campaign, against Mexico in the Three Lions’ second match, and really came into his own during the semi-final.
 
Bobby Charlton
Charlton fires home England's second goal against Portugal in the 1966 semi-final.
Portugal and the much-feared Eusebio were the opponents, and Charlton came out on top in the face-off between the tournament’s two best players. First, he latched on to a rebound to slide home England’s opener, before making the game safe ten minutes from time with a shot that he lashed across the goalkeeper. Eusebio scored a late penalty to ensure a nervy finale – his eighth goal of the World Cup – but England held on to reach their first, and so far only, final. 
 
Amazingly, Bobby’s dad – also named Bob – was working a shift down the mine and unable to see the game. Bob Sr. thought it would be
“a bit much”
to ask for any more time off from his manager, despite Bobby and his brother Jack both starting the game. In 1969, on a This is Your Life programme dedicated to his son, he revealed that his overman had to keep him updated on the score and Bobby’s goalscoring exploits! Bobby subsequently won the Golden Ball, given to the tournament’s best player, and was later awarded the 1966 Ballon d’Or.
NOBBY STILES (England v Portugal, 1966)
 
Nobby joins Bobby as the only Englishmen to have won a top-flight league title, the European Cup and the World Cup, and he remains a much-loved hero among both Reds and the wider English public. Immortalised in Baddiel and Skinner’s currently ubiquitous Three Lions song for his dancing on the Wembley turf after England had beaten West Germany in the 1966 final, Stiles was somewhat more stern and serious during matches. 
 
In the semi-final against Portugal, he was given the toughest and arguably most important job on the field – marking Portugal’s most dangerous player, Eusebio.
“Norbert, if we are to win the game today we have to stop their best player, Eusebio,”
manager Alf Ramsey told Stiles.
“I want you to mark him.”
 
Charlton was under no illusions as to how vital Collyhurst-born Stiles was to England’s 2-1 victory, later writing:
“Some said it was the finest game I ever played in an England shirt, but nobody needed to tell me that all my efforts would have come to nothing if Nobby hadn’t made himself the embodiment of our determination. He kept safe all our ambition and the hopes of all his countrymen.”
Nobby Stiles rises to challenge Eusebio
Nobby (no.4) rises to challenge Eusebio
CRISTIANO RONALDO (Portugal v France, 2006)
 
Ronaldo had helped eliminate England in the quarter-finals – scoring the winning penalty in a shootout – but was unable to turn the semi-final in his country’s favour. France, whose mature team was beautifully orchestrated by Zinedine Zidane throughout the tournament, ran out 1-0 victors thanks to a first-half penalty from their chief inspiration. United's no.7 strained every sinew, and turned in a superb performance despite choruses of boos from unhappy England fans, who had bought tickets for the match hoping their team would be taking part. Ronaldo would return to England weeks later to defy his detractors - he finished the subsequent 2006/07 season as a champion with United and was named PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Lilian Thuram of France playing against Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo tries to evade France defender Lilian Thuram
LOUIS SAHA (Portugal v France, 2006)
 
Ronaldo’s tears were another Red’s joy. Louis Saha was a late substitute as Les Bleus beat Portugal in the semi-final, but the United striker suffered the pain of a late booking that ruled him out of the final, which France would lose on penalties after a 1-1 draw and an infamous Zidane red card.
Louis Saha playing for France in the 2006 World Cup
Saha, seen here in a group game, helped France to reach the 2006 final
ROBIN VAN PERSIE (Netherlands v Argentina, 2014)
 
The 2014 World Cup was a bittersweet tournament for Robin van Persie and the Netherlands. The Oranje were unfancied before flying out to Brazil, but thanks to Louis van Gaal’s pragmatic 3-5-2 system and van Persie’s firepower, they reached the semi-finals, where they would heartbreakingly lose 4-2 on penalties to Lionel Messi and Argentina. Only Colombia’s James Rodriguez (six goals) and Thomas Muller of Germany (five) scored more goals than van Persie, however.
 
From just the five big names above, the list of United players who've featured in World Cup semi-finals looks set to be extended into double figures, as France, Belgium, Croatia and England battle for a place in Sunday’s final of Russia 2018. Good luck to all of the Reds involved.