The eighth European play-offs for the FIFA World Cup are set to unfold
We highlight some intriguing stats from over the years
Hat-tricks, unlikely heroes and 100-per-cent records feature
Only two of the 27 nations to have participated in the European play-offs boast a 100-per-cent record in matches. Yugoslavia thrashed Hungary 7-1 away at 5-0 at home in their two appearances in 1997, while Portugal have won all four of their games – all by one-goal margins - against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2009 and Sweden in 2013.
Sweden’s 1-0 aggregate victory in 2017 condemned Italy to missing a World Cup for the first time in 60 years. Jakob Johansson, who settled the tie with his first international goal in the first leg – six years after debuting for his country and four minutes after coming on – ruptured his ACL in the second and consequently missed Russia 2018.
Gigi Buffon astonishingly played in the UEFA play-offs 20 years apart. The teenage goalkeeper was sent on in the 31st minute of a play-off in Moscow in 1997 for the injured Gianluca Pagliuca, and he went on to produce a magnificent performance in the snow that helped Italy reach France 1998. Buffon then played in both legs of their defeat to Sweden in 2017. Belgium midfielder Franky Van der Elst, Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given, Russia midfielder Sergei Semak and Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko appeared in the play-offs 12 years apart.
Sinisa Mihajlovic, Vladimir Jugovic, Dragan Stojkovic, Dejan Savicevic, Predrag Mijatovic and Savo Milosevic helped Yugoslavia to a 12-1 aggregate thumping of Hungary in 1997 – comfortably the biggest victory in a UEFA play-off. It is followed by Turkey’s 6-0 win over Austria in 2001, Spain’s 6-2 reverse of Slovakia in 2005 and Denmark’s 5-1 defeat of Republic of Ireland in 2017.
Six hat-tricks have been scored in the UEFA play-offs. Mijatovic produced the first two, scoring three away and four at home for Yugoslavia against Hungary in 1997. Thereafter, trebles were netted by Luis Garcia for Spain against Slovakia in 2005, Tuncay Sanli for Turkey against Switzerland a few days later, Cristiano Ronaldo for Portugal against Sweden in 2013 and Christian Eriksen for Denmark against Republic of Ireland in 2017.
Rinus Michels’ Netherlands, featuring Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten, were five minutes away from reaching Mexico 1986 when disaster struck in Rotterdam. In a match in which most players wore tracksuit bottoms under their shorts, substitute centre-back Georges Grun headed home an Eric Gerets cross to send Belgium though on away goals.
Ukraine will extend their record tally of UEFA play-off appearances to five this year. Belgium, Croatia, Greece and Republic of Ireland are set to be joined on three participations by Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal, Sweden and Turkey.
Four sides have come through the European play-offs and finished on the podium at the subsequent World Cup. Croatia have done it twice, coming third and second at France 1998 and Russia 2018, while Germany and Turkey seized silver and bronze respectively at Korea/Japan 2002.
Three teams have reached the FIFA World Cup via the UEFA play-offs on the away-goals rule: Belgium against the Netherlands in 1985, Switzerland against Turkey in 2005, and Slovenia against Russia in 2009.
Two goals is the biggest deficit from which a team has recovered to win a UEFA play-off. France lost 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev in 2013, but won the second leg 3-0 in Paris. The unlikely hero was Mamadou Sakho, who - like Lilian Thuram - scored his only international goals in the same game.