Republic of Ireland 2 – 2 Italy
The Republic of Ireland were just moments away from beating the World champions on Saturday night.
Victory would ensure the Giovanni Trapattoni and his players would secure their place in the dusty and unused FAI annuals.
Flashbacks of 1994, the Giants Stadium and Ray Houghtons iconic goal swept over the Irish faithful in Croke Park. The stadium bounced in euphonium, chants of ‘ole ole ole’ drowned out the desperate instructions being issued by Giovanni Trapattoni.
The delirium lasted less than three minutes. Gilardinho popped up on the 90th minute to poach an incredible equaliser and ensure Italy’s participation in the 2010 World Cup.
The home side had taken the lead just seven minutes into the match. A smartly worked free kick by Liam Lawrence saw the Stoke midfielder tee up team-mate Glen Whelan on the outskirts of the Italian penalty box.
Whelan produced an emphatic strike with the vicious curl beating Gianluigi Buffon. It was rich reward for a positive opening spell for the men in green.
However, after taking an early lead, Robbie Keane and company promptly retreated deep into their own half, content to surrender possession to the Italians.
The Italians soon punished the Irish. Andrea Pirlo, who was simply majestic all night, whipped in a dangerous corner.
Mauro Camoranesi evaded the attentions of John O’Shea at the near post and Shay Given was unable to stop the midfielder’s thumping header. At 1-1, Ireland had once more discarded the initiative in a World Cup qualifier.
Pirlo began to dominate proceedings.
The hustle and bustle of Vincenzo Iaquinta and Di Natale up front kept Ireland’s central defensive pairing of Richard Dunne and St. Ledger busy.
Trapattoni’s men seemed to have morphed into Declan Kidney’s rugby team. The home side were content to play territorial football. Long, hopeful punts into the opposition half left Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle with little opportunity to threaten the suspect looking Legrottaglie.
The atmosphere within Croke Park became muted as the Italians knuckled down and started to stretch the Irish side. A rare foray into the half by Kevin Kilbane was soon halted by Gianluca Zambrotta as the game trickled to the half time break.
Two minutes after the break, the Italians thought they had surged into a well deserved lead.
Another divine Pirlo free kick was flicked on by Chiellini. The ball seemed destined for the net before Iaquinta scrambled the ball over the line. The linesman immediately raised his flag.
Aiden McGeady was Ireland’s only real threat all night. The winger has immense talent but lacks consistency. He toyed with the Camoranesi and Zambrotta producing elaborate step overs and flicks.
However, his end product was lacking more often than not.
Zambrotta had an attempt well saved by Shay Given on the 70th minute. The game seemed destined to end in a stalemate before the match embarked on a frantic final five minutes.
Stephen Hunt earned a free kick on the left hand corner of the Italian box. He curled an exquisite ball into the box which was met by the diving St. Ledger. The ball flew into the Italian’s net.
The Irish crowd rose to their feet with deafening cheers. It brought back memories of Ireland versus Holland in 2001.
Yet those ecstatic Irish fan were dealt a cruel blow a few short minutes later.
O’Shea found himself marooned on the left wing, allowing Iaquinta to bound down the his side of the pitch in acres of space. The result was inevitable.
The forward was afforded time and space to pick out strike-partner Gilardinho. The Fiorentina striker stroked the ball past Given to level affairs and ensure Italy’s passage to South Africa.
Ireland were forced to settle with a play-off spot.
A dogged display by the men in green was undermined by the lack of experience, and in the end as they were ultimately unable to see out the match at 2-1.