Ireland take crucial draw in Bari

Italy 1 Republic of Ireland 1

Robbie Keane kept the Republic of Ireland’s dreams of automatic qualification for the World Cup alive with a last-gasp equaliser to deny 10-man Italy victory.

The Tottenham striker stabbed home an 87th-minute shot at the San Nicola Stadium to claim a point that keeps Ireland within touching distance of the Italians at the top of Group Eight.

It also ensured manager Giovanni Trapattoni a share of the spoils against his home country and the man who replaced him as national boss, Marcello Lippi.

The reigning champions took an 11th-minute lead through Vincenzo Iaquinta despite having had striker Giampaolo Pazzini sent off with only three minutes gone.

But the Irish refused to give up and got their reward at the death as they retained their foothold in the race to make it to South Africa next summer.

Early drama has become a feature of Ireland’s recent games with Poland and Georgia stunning the hosts at Croke Park by taking the lead within minutes of kick-off and the Republic reversing the trend with Richard Dunne’s opener only 40 seconds into Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Bulgaria.

However, with Italian coaches Lippi and Trapattoni having prepared painstakingly for an eagerly-anticipated contest, both had their plans ripped apart before their players had broken sweat.

Kevin Kilbane, whose late own goal had handed the Bulgarians a point on Saturday, clattered into Pazzini within a minute and was perhaps fortunate to escape a yellow card.

The striker, making his first senior start for his country, was not quite so lucky two minutes later when he caught John O’Shea with a flailing arm, which drew blood and the red card from German referee Wolfgang Stark’s pocket.

Replays suggested the decision had been harsh, a view certainly shared by the home supporters, who had earlier jeered Lippi for his refusal to select Bari-born Antonio Cassano.

But if Trapattoni sensed an opportunity, his hopes were dashed within eight minutes as the world champions demonstrated their class in devastating style.

The mercurial Andrea Pirlo received the ball from full-back Fabio Grosso and delivered it perfectly back into the defender’s path to allow him to drill a cross through the ineffectual Paul McShane.

Iaquinta was unmarked in the middle to dispatch the simplest of chances and any perceived advantage for the visitors had been wrenched from their grasp.

Despite their numerical disadvantage, it was the supremely organised and technically gifted Italians who were dominating the game and Trapattoni uncharacteristically opted for a change with only 22 minutes gone.

The Republic boss has stuck rigidly to his favoured system since deciding that was how best to make use of the players at his disposal.

But in withdrawing Andy Keogh, who had started wide on the right in place of the injured Aiden McGeady, and sending on Hull striker Caleb Folan, he shuffled his pack.

Keane dropped into the hole between a three-man midfield and frontmen Folan and Kevin Doyle, and the change at least gave them a foothold in the game.

Midfielder Keith Andrews scuffed a 31st-minute effort wide when he should have done better and Stephen Hunt forced a fine save from Gianluigi Buffon with a half-volley five minutes before the break.

Few in green either on the pitch or in the stands would have been too disappointed to see Pirlo replaced by Angelo Palombo for the restart and he was quickly followed by Darron Gibson and Andrea Dossena as the two managers sought to out-manoeuvre each other.

Hunt, who was soon to be joined on the pitch by brother Noel as Doyle made way, had ambitious appeals for a 56th-minute penalty waved away after he went down under Buffon’s challenge but Ireland were at least starting to make an impression.

But it was not until an enthralling final 10 minutes or so that the home side wavered and, when they did, Ireland finally took advantage.

Kilbane saw an 84th-minute shot deflected over as the Italians became increasingly edgy at the back and their anxiety was to increase markedly as time ran down.

They finally cracked three minutes later when Folan made a nuisance of himself as he pursued Given’s long clearance and, when the ball broke from a scramble, it fell to the right man in the right place.

Keane needed no second invitation to stab home the 38th goal of his senior international career and send the travelling supporters behind Buffon’s goal into raptures.

It might have got even better for the Irish in the final minute of the game when the stranded keeper could only look on imploringly as Glenn Whelan’s shot looped up off one of his defenders and dropped just wide.

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