The tantalising prospect of Wales facing Scotland in Cardiff for a place at the World Cup finals had added gloss to the play-off process before the final tie was confirmed. Either Italy or Portugal – or potentially both – will miss out on Qatar 2022 after they were drawn in the same play-off path. If Italy beat North Macedonia and Portugal see off Turkey in late March, the last two European Championship winners will go head-to-head days later in Lisbon for a World Cup berth.
Scotland and Wales have history in World Cup qualifying. A penalty awarded to Scotland during a crucial tie against Wales, staged at Anfield in 1977, remains a source of hot debate 44 years on. The Welsh are adamant, not without justification, that Scotland’s Joe Jordan handled inside their penalty area. Instead Dave Jones was punished, Don Masson scored from the spot and Scotland marched towards Argentina. Jordan has always denied being the beneficiary of a wrong decision but the matter lingers in Wales.
“It puts a little bit more spice on it, doesn’t it?” said the Wales interim manager, Rob Page. “When you get one of the home nations, a potential play-off final to get through to the World Cup, it doesn’t get better than that. Full focus will be on the first game and we’ve got to earn the right to get to that final and Scotland will have to do the same.”
For the pair to meet, Scotland must see off Ukraine at home and Wales beat Austria in Cardiff. Ukraine enjoyed their last trip to Hampden, defeating Sweden there in June at Euro 2020’s last-16 stage. The only previous meeting between Scotland and Ukraine in Glasgow, 14 years ago, ended in a 3-1 Scotland win. Wales have lost only one of their past 19 home qualification matches.
Scotland and Wales must be content with their opportunity given the other teams in the Zurich hat. Page said: “If you had a wish, you’d want two home games. We had to work hard for one and we got the luck of the draw for the second one, so the incentive is there for us. We’ll have two packed houses. We’ve seen the impact supporters can have on us in the recent campaign. In the last two games, the stadium was rocking. We’ve given ourselves a great opportunity, haven’t we? It’s all there to play for.”
Steve Clarke characteristically played down the potential for a battle of Britain. “We certainly won’t be distracted by that,” Scotland’s manager said. “We always treat our immediate opponents with the utmost respect so that is what Ukraine will get. We will prepare properly.
“Ukraine will be a tough game. We will go away, do our homework on them and try to come up with a winning formula. With the confidence the boys have and the way the team is playing, we would have been happy to play anybody anywhere but the home crowd should give us an extra boost. This is something to look forward to over the winter months.”
Given Italy have never lost a home World Cup qualifying tie, they will be heavy favourites to defeat North Macedonia. Portugal’s task against Turkey is sterner. Nonetheless, thoughts have widely and understandably turned towards a conceivable final between two of European football’s powerhouses with a World Cup place at stake. Italy were nudged into the play-offs after finishing second to Switzerland in their group. Serbia took an automatic spot at Portugal’s expense.
Russia or Poland will enjoy home advantage against the winners of the semi-final between Sweden and the Czech Republic. There is, then, the possibility of a high-profile showdown between two of the world’s finest strikers: Poland’s Robert Lewandowski and Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Clarke believes a yellow card amnesty will soon be confirmed for the play-offs. As it stands, any player now on a booking would miss the final if cautioned in the semi-final. After representations by various associations, Fifa is close to backing down and resetting suspension records.