Cruel twist but point made
Rep of Ireland 2 Italy 2:Confirmation were it needed that Republic of Ireland sides always work better as underdogs came in spades at Croke Park last night, but ultimately it was Italy who left north Dublin with what they came for after Alberto Gilardino’s equaliser denied the homeside an historic win over the world champions.
Not all is lost, however. After Cyprus did one of their numbers on Bulgaria with a 4-1 win in Larnaca, second place in Group 8 was secured for Giovanni Trapattoni’s side before a ball was kicked and the point taken here crucially relegated Norway to lowest ranked runners-up spot and guaranteed Ireland a play-off place.
It was also, one feels, a night when Trapattoni’s Ireland came of age, when those unheralded players he put his faith in throughout an unbeaten campaign so far - not least goalscorers Glenn Whelan and Seán St Ledger - repaid the Italian’s faith.
The performance is sure to instil belief in the side, fans and media, that a result against another marquee name in world football over two legs is very achievable. .
Trapattoni had seen enough of Liam Lawrence in training and against South Africa last month to feel he was the latest to earn his trust on the big stage, ahead of Stephen Hunt. And the Italian was vindicated almost immediately.
The Stoke midfielder wasn’t spectacular but, unlike Hunt, Aiden McGeady or Damien Duff, he’s at home on the right and his presence alone appeared to offer more stability to the side in the opening exchanges.
Ireland pressed as a unit and forced mistakes from the world champions high up the pitch. Whelan and Keith Andrews bit into tackles and Daniele De Rossi, in particular, was not a fan.
On the left, McGeady was lively and looked very dangerous but took too much out of the ball at times and too often hit the first man with his crosses.
Keane and Doyle did their bit, giving Giorgio Chiellini and Fabio Cannavaro’s replacement Nicola Legrottaglie very little time to think, and the latter’s determination to stamp his authority led straight to the eight minute opener.
Some Keane trickery forced the centre back took down the Irish captain on the right hand side of the box and the usual suspects filed in to get a touch on Lawrence’s cross. The man making his competitive debut saw another option in Stoke club-mate Whelan, unmarked and outside the box.
His low ball wouldn’t quite sit down for Whelan but it made no difference to the Dubliner who struck it sweetly across Gianluigi Buffon and into the top left-hand corner.
Italy needed a goal to secure top spot but were not having much joy in possession, with Andrea Pirlo left trying to pick a pass through Richard Dunne and Seán St Ledger, who snuffed out Vincenzo Iaquinta’s runs efficiently early on.
However, after initially being closely shadowed by Lawrence, Fabio Grosso’s runs from the left full-back berth began to reap rewards and there was almost a carbon copy of the goal in Bari’s corresponding fixture until the defender miscued his cross from the byline.
He gave warning again when his low volley from Dunne’s headed clearance forced Shay Given into a routine save. Iaquinta then finally got a ball to feet within yards of goal but St Ledger timed his block well to concede the corner.
All of which was ample warning that the Italians are always dangerous and they proved it from Pirlo’s 26th minute corner, when Doyle missed his header at the near post and Mauro Camoranesi nipped into equalise with a downward header.
The response from the homeside was encouraging, though two moments of indecision from St Ledger in defence suggested Ireland had been a little unsettled by the goal.
An energetic first half would have brought Trapattoni a chance to steady the ship but hearts a skipped a beat in the opening minute of the second when Chiellini’s header from Pirlo’s free was redirected into the net by an offside Iaquinta.
The Juve striker’s cross then caught Given wandering a little and John O’Shea did well to head over the bar under pressure from Di Natale, before Ginaluca Zambrotta forced a smart save from Given at his near post.
Doyle was called ashore for Leon Best in the 67th minute and the Coventry striker immediately got involved, picking up a yellow for crunching De Rossi, and heading a ball down to Keane in the box, only for the Spurs man to get tangled up in Italian defenders. The captain may have made more of an impact on an encouraging performance had he not spent as much energy pleading with the referee to back him a bit more in the 50-50 challenges.
Martin Rowlands brought fresh legs to the midfield instead of Whelan, who departed to hero’s acclaim from the crowd.
The introduction of Gilardino by Marcelo Lippi was an ominous one, especially as Iaquinta opted to remain in support rather than offer a direct replacement for Di Natale on the left, but bringing on Stephen Hunt for McGeady wasn't a backward step from Trapattoni either.
The ever-ready Hull midfielder struggled at first, but then caused Zambrotta enough concern to force a foul from the Milan man on the edge of the area. After St Ledger was ordered forward by Given, the centre back brilliantly met Hunt’s cross with a diving header at the back post to prompt scenes usually reserved for GAA matches at Headquarters.
The finish line was in sight, but Gilardino had yet to have his say and when fellow substitute Simone Pepe, on for Palombo in the 89th minute, countered down the left Ireland were exposed.
Pepe fed Iaquinta down the left channel and the striker was allowed turn in the box by Andrews, after which he picked out a criminally unmarked Gilaardino whose calm finish silenced the home fans and left the pocket of Italians gleefully celebrating on the Hill.
Trapattoni will be disgusted his side did not close the door and at a loss, most likely, as to why they seemed to look for a third, but no doubt he’ll retain the faith.
REP OF IRELAND : Given (Manchester City); O’Shea (Manchester United), Dunne (Aston Villa), St Ledger (Middlesbrough), Kilbane (Hull City); Lawrence (Stoke City), Andrews (Blackburn Rovers), Whelan (Stoke City) (Rowlands 70), McGeady (Celtic) (S Hunt 78); Doyle (Wolves) (Best 67), Keane (Spurs).
ITALY: Buffon (Juventus); Zambrotta (Milan), Legrottaglie, Chiellini, Grosso (Bochetti 75) (all Juventus); Palombo (Sampdoria) (Pepe 89), De Rossi (Roma); Iaquinta (Juventus), Pirlo (Milan), Camoranesi (Juventus); Di Natale (Udinese) (Gilardino 76).