The defending champions, Italy, required an equalising goal at the start of added time last night to secure a place at next summer's World Cup finals, while the Republic of Ireland were left to continue gazing at the posters all over Dublin featuring Giovanni Trapattoni's face and one word, "Hope". Trapattoni's team, unbeaten after nine group matches, have qualified for next month's play-offs, although when Middlesbrough's Sean St Ledger scored his first international goal in the 88th minute for a 2-1 lead, the hope was for something even better: the possibility of winning the section if Italy slipped up at home to improving Cyprus on Wednesday.
A place in the play-offs was always the most likely outcome and it is already a source of some discontent for the Irish. Until three weeks ago they believed Fifa would be operating an open draw, but now the four countries with the highest co-efficients will be seeded – France, Portugal, Russia and Greece – with Ireland among the four outsiders.
What they could not complain about was the fairness of the result, sickening as it was to have a famous victory snatched away so late in the day. Italy recovered with the spirit and skill of champions after conceding an early goal and again after St Ledger's intervention. In Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi they had a perfect midfield combination of silk and steel. Stoke's Glenn Whelan, despite striking a superb goal, and Blackburn's Keith Andrews understandably struggled to match them and could never keep the ball for any length of time.
Whelan's goal, which briefly had all the old anthems rending the Dublin air, was beautifully executed, albeit against some unexpectedly lax defending. Robbie Keane had a won a free-kick down the right from Nicola Legrottaglie's crude challenge. Liam Lawrence, given his first competitive appearance in place of the injured Damien Duff, shaped as if to cross the ball, then cut it back to Whelan, who was completely alone and allowed to set himself for a wonderfully curled shot going away from Gianluigi Buffon and into the top corner of the net.
Buffon, like Kevin Kilbane and Shay Given, was making his 99th international appearance. The Manchester City goalkeeper soon found himself much the busier of the two, however, as a wall of pressure built up that finally broke the dam. After a succession of four chances in as many minutes, Pirlo took a corner and Mauro Camoranesi, one of the smallest players on the pitch, was allowed a header that Given could not quite repel.
When Trapattoni wanted fresh inspiration in the second half he had to turn to representatives of Coventry City and Queens Park Rangers in Leon Best and Martin Rowlands, with only three caps apiece. The third substitute, Stephen Hunt, offered timely direct running on the left and with five minutes to play he was fouled by Gianluca Zambrotta. Hunt took the free-kick himself and St Ledger, occasionally uncertain in defence, became a potential hero with a thrusting header.
Alas, there was more to come: John O'Shea and then St Ledger were caught out on the counter as Vincenzo Iaquinta moved out to the left and crossed for substitute Alberto Gilardino to secure the holders' passage.
Italy's coach Marcello Lippi said: "It was an excellent match and Italy played with authority against a team with strong spirit. To lose would have been very unfair." Trapattoni felt Ireland should have been more Italian at the end. "We needed to lose the time," he said. "It is a young team, and I hope it will be a great lesson." The hope is that they will learn it in time for next month.
Referee: Terje Hauge (Nor)
Man of the match: Pirlo
Match rating: 8/10