10.10.2009 at 15:00 Croke Park
Republic of Ireland
2 - 2
Referee: Terje Hauge (NOR)
World Cup Qualifier-match
10th Cap for Keith Andrews;
Martin Rowlands plays first game since 2 June 2004 v Jamica
Republic of Ireland 2 Italy 2
The Republic of Ireland were twice pegged back to draw 2-2 with Italy at Croke Park - but can at least take consolation in a play-off berth.
Giovanni Trapattoni's side enjoyed a dream start when Glenn Whelan netted with a sublime strike in the eighth minute after Liam Lawrence teed him up from a free-kick.
But the world champions were level within 18 minutes when Mauro Camoranesi headed home Andrea Pirlo's corner.
Vincenzo Iaquinta's goal was then disallowed for off-side before the Republic looked like they would claim a famous win when Sean St Ledger netted with three minutes to go to blow the race for automatic qualification wide open.
But substitute Alberto Gilardino netted a last-gasp equaliser to ensure Marcello Lippi's side qualified for next summer's finals as Group Eight winners, while the Republic must now win a two-legged play-off to reach South Africa.
In front of a bumper crowd of 70,640, the Republic kicked off knowing second place in the group was secure as a result of Bulgaria's 4-1 defeat in Cyprus earlier on Saturday.
But Trapattoni's side were intent on winning their final two games to push the Italians all the way for automatic qualification.
They could hardly have got off to a better start as they rekindled memories of their famous victory over Holland eight years ago which paved the way for the trip to 2002 finals in the Far East.
The game was just eight minutes old when they were awarded a free-kick for Nicola Legrottaglie's challenge on skipper Robbie Keane wide on the right.
Lawrence, making his first competitive appearance for his country, shaped to deliver the free-kick into the middle, but instead pulled it square to fellow Stoke midfielder Whelan.
The 25-year-old, who scored in the opening game of the campaign in the 2-1 victory over Georgia in Germany, lifted a first time shot curling high over the astonished Gianluigi Buffon to sent a packed house at Croke Park into raptures.
For a fleeting moment, the Italians were on the back foot and dreams of snatching top spot from them were very much alive.
Keeper Shay Given, like full-back Kevin Kilbane winning his 99th senior international cap, was called upon with 25 minutes gone to keep out Fabio Grosso's stinging volley, and the danger signs were there for all to see.
Had it not been for St Ledger's perfectly-timed challenge seconds later, Iaquinta, who scored in the 1-1 draw in Bari in April, might have levelled.
However, the respite was painfully brief, and the visitors restored parity from the resulting corner.
The increasingly influential Pirlo curled the ball to the near post, where Camoranesi managed to get himself between Kevin Doyle and John O'Shea to head powerfully past the helpless Given.
Lippi's men largely held sway for the remainder of the half with Pirlo orchestrating from midfield and the home side battling to repel a constant tide, although with few genuine scares.
Legrottaglie headed another Pirlo corner wide four minutes before the break, but that was as close as Italy came to snatching the lead.
But Keane and Doyle were seeing little of the ball where it mattered, and although the captain shot acrobatically into the side-netting as the whistle approached, the balance of power was very much with Italians.
The visitors thought they had gone ahead within two minutes of the restart with Pirlo once again the architect.
His swinging free-kick was helped on into the path of Iaquinta, who bundled the ball home from point-blank range, only to be greeted by an offside flag as he wheeled away with his arms aloft.
O'Shea headed tamely into Buffon's arms as he attempted to turn Aiden McGeady's 49th-minute free-kick back across goal, while Keith Andrews fired high over from distance after Lawrence had blasted a 55th-minute free-kick into the wall.
Keane saw a shot blocked by Giorgio Chiellini and Richard Dunne headed a Lawrence corner straight at Buffon, but O'Shea had to clear Iaquinta's cross over his own bar with Antonio di Natale lurking.
It took a fine block from St Ledger to keep out Pirlo after he had been picked out on the edge of the box by Daniel de Rossi's 66th-minute pass.
Gianluca Zambrotta's fierce 71st-minute drive forced Given into a save at his near post, but as time ran down, the atmosphere grew more tense by the minute.
But the stadium erupted with three minutes remaining when St Ledger dived to head home Stephen Hunt's free-kick and seemingly hand his side victory.
However, Gilardino, who had failed to track the defender's run, made amends in the final minute of normal time when he guided Iaquinta's cross past the wrong-footed Given to break Irish hearts.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given; John O'Shea, Richard Dunne, Sean St. Ledger, Kevin Kilbane; Liam Lawrence, Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Aiden McGeady; Kevin Doyle, Robbie Keane.
Substitutes: Leon Best for Doyle 67, Martin Rowlands for Whlan 76, Stephen Hunt for McGeady 78.
Italy: Buffon; Zambrotta, Lelgrottaglie, Chiellini, Grosso; Camoranesi, De Rossi, Pirlo, Palombo, Di Natale; Iaquinta.
Substitutes: Gilardino for Di Natale and Bochetti for Grosso 76, Pepe for Palombo 89.
Referee: Mr. Hauge Terje (Norway).