Keane's sweet strike
Irish captain's saves day with late leveller as 10-man Italy wilt under pressure
An Irish team comes to Italy, enjoys a monopoly on possession and, despite only grabbing a late equaliser, can feel somewhat disappointed that they came away with just a solitary point. It must have been April Fool's Day alright.
But that's what happened here last night, although the story comes with a significant asterisk. When Giampaolo Pazzini controversially received his marching orders after three minutes at the Stadio San Nicola, natural order went out the window.
Despite that boost, Ireland sloppily fell behind shortly afterwards and subsequently huffed and puffed for long periods before Robbie Keane restored parity with six minutes remaining.
After that, they created enough opportunities to take all the spoils with the rattled Azzurri living on the edge all the way through injury-time.
The dream of automatic qualification for South Africa remains alive, although realistically the most pertinent consequence of Keane's goal is that the gap between Ireland and Bulgaria -- who beat Cyprus yesterday -- will be five points rather than four when they take to the field in Sofia in June.
There was much hilarity after the game when Trapattoni barged into Marcello Lippi's post-match press conference to take a seat beside his old foe, effectively bringing an end to the Italian formalities. The spring in the step of the Irish manager spoke volumes about his mood.
"The players are very happy in the dressing room, and I am very happy," he said. "Sure we were a bit nervous at times tonight, because we wanted to achieve the result and we made some mistakes.
"But I can't give out to my players this evening because they gave their all and this was a result we wanted."
Lippi had said in the preliminaries that Trapattoni was still capable of playing a joke on Italy, but there were no surprises in terms of team selection; the only change from Saturday was widely anticipated, with Andy Keogh replacing the stricken Aiden McGeady.
Indeed, it was the home coach who sprung something of a shock, opting to start both Vincenzo Iaquinta and Pazzini up front when the pre-match talk suggested it would be one or the other. The third striker in the 4-3-3 was Simone Pepe, who got the nod ahead of Fabio Quagliarella. Meanwhile, in midfield, Angelo Palombo was sacrificed with Matteo Brighi coming in. Options.
Trapattoni had stressed the difficulty of the challenge ahead of his players, detailing how Lippi had 30 players to choose from compared to his meagre resources. Never could the Irish manager have expected that three minutes into the game, he would be gifted a significant numerical advantage.
From a distance, the aerial challenge between Pazzini and John O'Shea, which resulted in the latter falling to the ground, looked innocuous. But German referee Wolfgang Stark was quickly informed that his linesman reckoned the reality had been something more sinister. The dubious verdict was that Pazzini had deliberately elbowed O'Shea. Red card. Shock and awe all round.
"It was very unfair to send him off for something that was not violent," said Lippi. Trapattoni agreed.
All the pre-match predictions were obsolete with the plot radically altered. the onus was on Ireland to make use of the situation as opposed to merely countering the threat of the hosts. The initial outcome, though, was pretty disastrous; by the 10th minute, Italy were in front.
The genesis of the strike was the majesty of Andrea Pirlo, whose delectable chip left Paul McShane in no-man's land. Fabio Grosso had slipped away from Andy Keogh and scuttled into the space, rapidly crossing for Iaquinta whose instinctive flick flashed past Given. The masters of stinginess had a lead to protect.
They reverted to a 4-4-1 with Iaquinta ploughing a lone furrow. When Ireland got on the ball, there was space to exploit. McShane, in particular, was allowed a licence to roam. If Trap had started a full-back with attacking proficiency it would have provided opportunity. Kevin Foley was sitting idle on the bench.
Ten minutes later, Trap did look to his replacements, though. It was time for a formation reshuffle, with Keogh the casualty. Caleb Folan was sprung, with the Irish effectively switching to a variation on a 4-3-3 with Robbie Keane given a free role behind the newcomer and Doyle. For the first time during his tenure, the boss was reverting to a 'Plan B'.
With Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews performing reasonably well in the centre of the park in terms of ball winning, the white shirts eventually managed to string a few passes together and push Italy back, but when it came to the final ball, there was a lack of subtlety.
Andrews rushed a shot on the half-hour mark when time was on his side in the opposition penalty area.
A minute later, Ireland almost conceded again with Whelan culpable of a stupid error on the edge of his own box. Pirlo capitalised and seconds later Given was flapping at a delivery which sailed over his head. Simone Pepe was the grateful recipient, but could only find the side netting when he should have done better.
Buoyed by the let-off, Ireland enjoyed a decent spell and produced their best chance of the half five minutes before the interval when Hunt played head tennis with himself before unleashing a dipping volley that Gianluigi Buffon expertly tipped over the bar.
When the half-time whistle blew, Trapattoni rushed to the dressing room to press his message home. He would return to another pleasant surprise with Pirlo nowhere to be seen, Angelo Palombo taking his place. Lippi confirmed later it was a tactical switch as he wanted another holding midfielder. Meanwhile, Trapattoni ended McShane's misery on the right side by swapping him with O'Shea.
Alas, it was Italy who resumed sprightliest and within nine minutes Trap was so dissatisfied that another new face was introduced, with Andrews called ashore and Darron Gibson sent into the fray, presumably because of his passing range. With the Italians content enough to defend deep, the visiting midfield were being afforded time to pick a pass -- you can insert your comment about the madness of Andy Reid's complete exclusion here.
Instead, frustrated by Doyle's failure to trouble Cannavaro or Chiellini, Trapattoni withdrew the Reading man and introduced clubmate Noel Hunt in his place. Italian legs were wilting, as Ireland began to push forward with more purpose.
Alas, there was a sense that it was slipping away until a hopeful punt from Shay Given in the 84th minute. Folan caused chaos in the Italian area by simply falling over -- but getting a vital touch on the ball at the same time; Keane nipped in gleefully to poke the ball beyond Buffon. Wild celebrations and a sense of relief.
The players sensed blood. Buffon was called into action to deny Whelan and Kilbane amid a series of corners and frees, with the immense Stephen Hunt producing his best display in the Irish jersey, always prominent.
Yet it was Keane who received the last chance, latching onto another Folan flick, but he overclubbed his effort with Buffon stranded.
Nevertheless, it was the Irish who left happier when Stark brought an end to proceedings. Time will tell if this was a crucial point gained or two precious points dropped.