The aura at Croke Park confirmed how much this game meant to the Irish. A sea of white and green was evident as we sat behind one of the goals, with the entire main stands right in front of us. The Irish came out like a house on fire, going up 1-0 after 8 minutes on a set piece from Liam Lawrence to midfielder Glenn Whelan. A cautious optimism began to grow on all sides of us. The Italians passed the ball around well in the midfield but didn't seriously threaten through the first 20 minutes. Timely stops by stalwarts Richard Dunne and John O'Shea quickly became a familiar site. But the Italians broke through on the 26th minute off the head of Argentinian-born Mauro Camorenesi. The rest of the first half was largely uneventful.
The second half began much like the first ended, with the ball staying mostly in the midfield. Chances were scarce; Ireland made a few substitutions. The crowd began to grow more and more restless as shots went by the wayside. A 1-1 draw seemed more and more likely until substitute Stephen Hunt created a free-kick opportunity from just outside the left end of the box. The crowd grew eerily quiet as he lined it up. Hunt delivered a beautiful bending ball to the far side and it met the head of a diving Sean St. Ledger. Pandemonium erupts...off the top of my head it is one of the top 3 moments of my career as a sport spectator.
All we had to do was hold off the Italians for 4 more minutes. It all happened so quickly...an errant pass and the Azzurri were coming at our goal faster than Rex Ryan to Mickey D's after a Jets game. And the unthinkable yet somewhat expected happened; the Italians put on in the back of the net. It was substitute Alberto Gilardino. A draw was still a good result for the Irish against the powerhouse nation,but the way it went down was heartbreaking.
Next up for the Irish will be the final group qualifier against hapless Montenegro. With second place in the group already secured, the game does not have all that much meaning. Next month the Irish will be paired in a playoff with the likes of France, Russia or Greece in a home and home matchup. The winner on aggregate goals will head to the World Cup in South Africa in June. More on this as it develops.