At a tetchy pre-match press conference in Dublin on Friday evening, Italy's coach Marcello Lippi was asked if his countryman Giovanni Trapattoni had instilled an Italian mentality into the Republic of Ireland team. He replied in the negative, suggesting instead that his old rival, who has not worked in Italy since the bitter fallout from his Euro 2004 failure, had a more broadly international approach. The best and worst of that attitude were seen in a dramatic final five minutes here on Saturday night as Ireland snatched a 2-1 lead, then allowed the group leaders an equaliser by naïvely failing to close out the game.
When they won a late free-kick with the scores level, Trapattoni overruled his assistant Marco Tardelli and waved Sean St Ledger forward. The Middlesbrough defender duly threw himself at Stephen Hunt's cross to head a first goal for his country. Yet with added time looming, John O'Shea was also caught recklessly far upfield, the imperious Andrea Pirlo set Italy on the counter-attack and defenders were outwitted as Alberto Gilardino turned in Vincenzo Iaquinta's square pass.
Earlier, and more understandably, Ireland had been unable to remain in control of the game after a storming start that had a crowd of more than 70,000 dreaming of past glories under Jack Charlton and Mick McCarthy. After Stoke's Glenn Whelan opened the scoring with a beautifully struck shot from 25 yards, Italy came on strong, deserving Mauro Camoranesi's headed equaliser and had a tap-in by Iaquinta narrowly disallowed for offside.
The upshot of it all is that Lippi's world champions will be in South Africa next summer to defend their crown and Trapattoni's side, missing from the big stages since 2002, must beat one of four seeded countries in next month's play-offs to join them. Those potential opponents will almost certainly be Russia (ranked sixth in the world), France (10th), Greece (12th) or Portugal (17th). None are unbeatable over two legs, although Ireland (38th) are neither prolific scorers (12 in nine group games) nor keepers of clean sheets (one in 10 games over the past year).
Oddly, given those statistics, their two exceptional talents are at either end of the field in Shay Given, who is due to win his 100th cap in the redundant final game against Montenegro on Wednesday, and the captain Robbie Keane. In between them are a hard-working group lacking the creativity of Manchester City's Stephen Ireland, who refuses to play, and Sunderland's Andy Reid, who is no longer picked.
"We are happy with the players we have," Trapattoni said yesterday, which is discouraging news for Reid in particular. What some of them lack, the coach suggested, was experience although he must have been looking at midfielders like Whelan, his club-mate Liam Lawrence and Blackburn's Keith Andrews rather than defenders like Kevin Kilbane, also on 99 caps, O'Shea and Richard Dunne.
The coach would have had in mind his own country when he said: "Other teams have players with fantasia, creativity. Other players in other countries are born with these qualities. We were missing a little bit of experience. With experience we could have controlled the game with a little more savvy. We can lose time, break up the time. If Italy had been ahead of us, our head would have been spinning going after the ball. That's experience. We have to think. It's important also to play with our heads."
O'Shea said: "It feels like a defeat, being in such a great position twice and to have played so well in the game. We should be going down to the wire here in this group but we've consolidated with second place."
That position, two draws with the world champions and the probability of finishing unbeaten over 10 group matches, is as much as anyone could reasonably have expected. The Football Association of Ireland had already acknowledged as much by awarding a two-year extension to Trapattoni, whose next task is to improve Ireland's poor record in play-offs, where they have only ever succeeded once.
Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given (Manchester City); O'Shea (Manchester United), St Ledger (Middlesbrough), Dunne (Aston Villa), Kilbane (Hull); Lawrence (Stoke), Andrews (Blackburn), Whelan (Stoke), McGeady (Celtic); Keane (Tottenham), Doyle (Wolves). Substitutes used: Best (Coventry) for Doyle, 66; Rowlands (QPR) for Whelan, 70; S Hunt (Hull) for McGeady, 78.
Italy (4-2-3-1 ): Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Milan), Chiellini, Legrottaglie, Grosso (all Juventus); De Rossi (Roma), Palombo (Sampodoria); Camoranesi (Juventus), Pirlo (Milan), De Natale (Udinese); Iaquinta (Juventus). Substitutes used: Gilardino (Fiorentina) for Di Natale, 76; Bocchetti (Genoa) for Grosso, 76; Pepe (Udinese) for Palombo, 88.
Referee: T Hauge (Norway).
Booked: Republic of Ireland Whelan, Best; Italy De Rossi.
Man of the match: Pirlo.
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