Republic denied by last-gasp Italy

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Substitute Alberto Gilardino broke Republic of Ireland hearts as a last-gasp equaliser got World Cup holders Italy out of jail following the 2-2 draw.

Gilardino struck in the final minute of normal time just as it looked as though Sean St Ledger's 87th-minute header had blown the race for automatic qualification from Group Eight wide open.

Ireland, who were already guaranteed a play-off spot thanks to Cyprus' win over Bulgaria, had taken the lead through Glenn Whelan's eighth-minute strike, but Mauro Camoranesi levelled with 26 minutes gone as the reigning champions booked their ticket to South Africa.

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 lifted a first time shot curling high over the astonished Gianluigi Buffon to sent a packed house at Croke Park into raptures.

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.

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.

In the second half, 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.

Copyright (c) PA Sport 2009, All Rights Reserved.

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Robbie Keane
Stoke City
Sean St Ledger
John O'Shea
Stephen Hunt
Premier League
Kevin Doyle
Glenn Whelan
Stephen Hunt
Liam Lawrence

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