Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni urged his team to learn from their painful lesson after Italy snatched World Cup victory from their grasp.
Sean St Ledger’s 87th-minute header looked to have handed Trapattoni’s men a famous victory over the world champions which would have blown the race for the top spot in Group Eight and automatic qualification for next summer’s finals wide open.
However, substitute Alberto Gilardino’s 90th-minute equaliser broke Irish hearts and ensured the Italians won the group.
The Republic’s point at least booked them a place in the play-offs, but as they prepare for Wednesday night’s final qualifier against Montenegro and the two-legged showdown which will follow, they know it could have been so much better.
Trapattoni said: “Our aim was to win, but in the last three minutes, we needed experience.
“We are a young team and this is an important lesson for us. We must learn from it.
“Yes, I am disappointed. Italy probably deserved a goal, but that’s not the point.
“I’m upset, not because I know the work that has to be done, but because we let a goal in so late.”
St Ledger’s first goal for his country – a diving header from substitute Stephen Hunt’s free-kick – sent a crowd of 70,640 into raptures at Croke Park.
But there was to be a cruel twist in the tail when Italian Gilardino, the man designated to mark St Ledger at the set-piece, redeemed himself by turning home Vincenzo Iaquinta’s cross in the final minute of normal time.
Glenn Whelan had earlier got the home side off to a dream start when he thumped home Liam Lawrence’s intelligent free-kick, and although Mauro Camoranesi levelled 18 minutes later, Ireland thought they had clinched another famous scalp to go with that of Holland during the qualifying campaign for the 2002 finals.
Skipper Robbie Keane was devastated to see two priceless points slip away at the end of the game.
He said: “It sums us up, doesn’t it? That’s what happens to us all the time.
“In the dressing room, the lads are disappointed. Before the game, people would have thought that was a good result.
“But when you are three minutes away from a victory against the world champions and they score with literally the last kick of the game, the boys are obviously devastated in the dressing room.
“But we need to pick ourselves back up because we have got another big game on Wednesday.”
Defender St Ledger admitted his side’s frustration despite holding Italy to a draw for the second time in their qualifying group.
The Middlesbrough defender 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.”
St Ledger met substitute Stephen Hunt’s free-kick with a diving header, but there was some dispute as to whether he should have been in the box in the first place.
“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) Iaquinto was going to shoot and then he (Gilardino) shot and it squirmed past Shay slowly – it’s one of those things.”
Manchester United defender John O’Shea added on Sky Sports 2: “It feels like a defeat.
“We’ve scored some great goals and let it slip, and it’s that little bit of concentration at the vital times. It’s hugely disappointing.
“We were playing the world champions and we were two or three minutes away from a win, so we know whoever we get in the play-offs we are more than capable of winning.”
Italy boss Marcello Lippi felt his side deserved their point, and was delighted to have clinched qualification with Wednesday’s home clash with Cyprus still to come.
He said: “This is the third time Italy have qualified for the World Cup one match before the end of the qualifying campaign.
“We did it in 1982 and 2006 and this could be a sign of good luck.
“I’m particularly satisfied because it was an excellent match and we showed excellent spirit and good authority.
“I am very, very happy with the enthusiasm that this team showed. It’s important for a coach like me when I am rebuilding a team.
“It’s still a work in progress and only halfway through it, but we have shown our quality and strength.
“Yesterday, I was asked if I was worried or afraid and I said I was excited – I am very excited.
“To lose would have been very unfair, but we played an excellent match.
“I wish Trapattoni all the best to qualify.”