Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni urged his team to learn from their painful lesson after Italy snatched FIFA World Cup qualifying victory from their grasp. Sean St. Ledger's 87th-minute header looked to have handed Trapattoni's men a famous victory over the world champions that would have blown the race for the top spot in Group 8 and automatic qualification for next summer's finals wide open.
However, substitute Alberto Gilardino's 90th-minute equaliser broke Irish hearts and ensured the Italians won the group. Ireland's point at least booked them a place in the play-offs, but as they prepare for Wednesday night's final qualifier against Montenegro and the two-legged showdown that will follow, they know it could have been so much better.
Trapattoni said: "Our aim was to win, but in the last three minutes, we needed experience. We are a young team and this is an important lesson for us. We must learn from it.
"Yes, I am disappointed. Italy probably deserved a goal, but that's not the point. I'm upset, not because I know the work that has to be done, but because we let a goal in so late."
St. Ledger's first goal for his country - a diving header from substitute Stephen Hunt's free-kick - sent the crowd of 70,640 into raptures at Croke Park. But there was to be a cruel twist in the tale when Italian Gilardino, the man designated to mark St. Ledger at the set-piece, redeemed himself by turning home Vincenzo Iaquinta's cross in the final minute of normal time.
Glenn Whelan had earlier got the home side off to a dream start when he thumped home Liam Lawrence's intelligent free-kick, and although Mauro Camoranesi levelled 18 minutes later, Ireland thought they had clinched another famous scalp to go with that of the Netherlands earned during the qualifying campaign for the 2002 finals.
Captain Robbie Keane was devastated to see two priceless points slip away in the final moments. He said: "It sums us up, doesn't it? That's what happens to us all the time. In the dressing room, the lads are disappointed. Before the game, people would have thought that was a good result.
"But when you are three minutes away from a victory against the world champions and they score with literally the last kick of the game, the boys are obviously devastated in the dressing room," said Keane.
"But we need to pick ourselves back up because we have got another big game on Wednesday."
A good omen?
Italy coach Marcello Lippi felt his side deserved their point and was delighted to have clinched qualification with Wednesday's home match with Cyprus still to come. He said: "This is the third time Italy have qualified for the [FIFA] World Cup one match before the end of the qualifying campaign.
"We did it in 1982 and 2006 and this could be a sign of good luck. I'm particularly satisfied because it was an excellent match and we showed excellent spirit and good authority.
"I am very, very happy with the enthusiasm that this team showed. It's important for a coach like me when I am rebuilding a team," he said. "It's still a work in progress and only halfway through it, but we have shown our quality and strength.
"Yesterday, I was asked if I was worried or afraid and I said I was excited; I am very excited.
"To lose would have been very unfair, but we played an excellent match," said Lippi. "I wish Trapattoni all the best to qualify."