Ireland 2-2 Italy: World Cup Holders Qualify With One Match To Spare
Ireland very nearly forced Italy to the final round of qualifiers in order to book a place at the World Cup, but a last gasp Alberto Gilardino strike ensured the world champions booked their trip southwards.
Sean St Ledger had stooped to put the Irish into an 86th minute lead, the second time they fronted the encounter following Glenn Whelan’s opener and Mauro Camoranesi’s equaliser, but it was all to little avail.
Ireland will make the play-offs nonetheless, but the Italians sneak straight in.
The Irish started at a canter, going ahead with their first effort on goal; Nicola Legrottaglie had looked uncomfortable throughout the early stages and brought Robbie Keane down on the edge of his own box after eight minutes.
Liam Lawrence stroked the ball across the face of goal and Whelan curled a sumptuous effort past Gigi Buffon from all of 20 yards.
With the 70,640-strong crowd behind them, the Boys in Green set about their guests, hassling and harrying and not allowing the accomplished Italians time to settle.
Aiden McGeady stroked a cross-cum-shot narrowly off target on 18 minutes; however, from there, the Italians hit their stride and the hosts proved increasingly profligate in possession.
Andrea Pirlo found the space to rove between the Irish defensive and midfield lines and it was his exquisite pass that played Fabio Grosso in on the left wing just after the 20 minute mark; his cross went unfinished in the centre as Daniele De Rossi failed to make contact.
The left-back then stung the palms of Shay Given with a strike from distance after a Camoranesi cross was cleared.
Lippi’s side did not have to wait long to level though. Antonio Di Natale and Vincenzo Iaquinta combined to force a corner on 25 minutes and Andrea Pirlo picked out Camoranesi with the delivery.
The diminutive Juventino was in acres of space in the Irish area to nod beyond Given, although the Manchester City ‘keeper might feel he could have done better.
Legrottaglie headed wide from a similar opportunity before the interval and the Irish would have been pleased to have gone in on level terms.
Indeed, the hosts were fortunate not to find themselves 2-1 down immediately after the restart; Pirlo’s free-kick was initially flicked goalward by Giorgio Chiellini but a latter touch from Iaquinta, no more than a yard out, was deemed to have been illegitimate as the home marking was again lax.
Ireland were better in the second period period though, after that scare, enjoying possession further up the field and making their presence count on set-pieces.
John O’Shea reached one such delivery from McGeady but Buffon claimed the ball easily. Soon after, Andrews slammed a rebound from Lawrence’s wall-bound free-kick over the top.
The Irish goal threat was admittedly intermittent and usually from dead-ball situations; Dunne nodded into the hands of Buffon just after the hour from a corner.
From that breakout though , Iaquinta was close to finding Di Natale in the area but O’Shea had scampered sufficiently down field to head over his own bar.
The Italians remained competent and no more, unable to come up with the goods in the final third.
They were made pay for their complacency with only three minutes to go, and it was another set-piece which outdone the Azzurri.
Stephen Hunt delivered the perfect free-kick from the left and Middlesbrough’s Sean St Ledger stooped to score his first international goal.
However, it was not enough. Irish nerves were jangling into injury time and they were done by a rudimentary Italian move. Iaquinta cut the ball across the face of goal and the substitute Gilardino rolled the equaliser home in the absence of significant pressure.