Giovanni Trapattoni came within three minutes of a famous FIFA World Cup™ victory over his native Italy as the reigning champions got out of jail at the death to ensure qualification for South Africa 2010.

Substitute Alberto Gilardino snatched a 2-2 draw with a 90th-minute strike just three minutes after Sean St Ledger thought he had blown the race for automatic qualification from Group 8 wide open. St Ledger's 87th-minute goal, his first for his country, looked to have closed the gap to the leaders to a single point going into the final round of matches on Wednesday. However, Gilardino's face-saver booked Italy's ticket to South Africa.

The Republic had already been guaranteed a play-off spot as Cyprus had beaten Bulgaria earlier on Saturday. Glenn Whelan had fired the home side ahead after just eight minutes as a bumper crowd of 70,640 at Croke Park dared to believe.

Mauro Camoranesi's 26th-minute equaliser sent the Italians in level at the break, but there were few signs of the drama which was to follow at the death. Ireland kicked off knowing second place in the group was secure as a result of Bulgaria's 4-1 defeat in Cyprus earlier, but 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 the Netherlands eight years ago which paved the way for the trip to Korea/Japan 2002. 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.

Liam 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 send 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. Goalkeeper 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, Vincenzo 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.

Champions respond
The increasingly influential Andrea 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. Marcello 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 tenser 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.

Goalscorer Sean St Ledger admitted his side's frustration despite holding the world champions to a draw for the second time in the qualification campaign. St Ledger told Sky Sports 2: "Everyone's majorly disappointed in the changing room. It just feels like a loss, having scored so late in the game and then conceding like that.

"Emotions are probably setting in, we're probably not thinking logically, but if there is a positive we gave the world champions a run for their money and we're undefeated in the group. I'm back for corners and free-kicks usually," he said. "But we needed to win this game if we had any chance of getting an automatic qualification and my goalscoring record's not been too bad from those in the last couple of games.

"Shay (Given) told me to go up and fortunately I got my head on it and thought it might have won it so late into the game. But I suppose that's why the Italians are champions, a never-die attitude, and they've come up with the goal late in the game. We got caught on the counter-attack, I thought the lad (Vincenzo) Iaquinta was going to shoot and then he (Gilardino) shot and it squirmed past Shay slowly - it's one of those things."