Italy have managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup finals with one match to spare on two occasions, and both times – in 1982 and 2006 – the Azzurri went on to lift the trophy. Therefore, Marcello Lippi could be forgiven for licking his lips when commenting on Saturday's 2-2 draw against the Republic of Ireland that guaranteed his side first place in Group 8 ahead of Wednesday's game against Cyprus.
"It's a statistic we mention with a smile in our faces – we know it does not mean that much," said Lippi. "We almost lost but I think a defeat would have been very unfair because the lads played with great authority, personality and quality for the whole game." Giovanni Trapattoni's side took the lead with a thumping shot by Glenn Whelan but the Azzurri responded with a header by Mauro Camoranesi. Sean St Ledger then seemed to have earned the hosts three points with a diving header three minutes from time, only for Alberto Gilardino to equalise once again with a last-minute shot which wrong-footed Shay Given.
"I think it was the most important goal I have scored for Italy," said Gilardino, a second-half substitute who was marking St Ledger when the centre-back headed in the second Ireland goal. "My team-mates didn't say anything about that mistake and we all just tried to respond immediately. Fortunately we managed to do it. It's great to qualify for the World Cup like this." The 27-year-old is now targeting another World Cup success after the triumph in Germany in 2006. "We know it will be difficult but we want to defend our title in South Africa," said the ACF Fiorentina striker. "We still have a lot of the players who won the World Cup three years ago and a few others who are eager to shine and find a place in the team. I think this is a great group."
Meanwhile, Lippi conceded there is still plenty of work to be done ahead of next year's tournament. "We had to rebuild the team when we started this qualifying campaign and I can say that works are still in progress," he added. "However, we earned seven wins and two draws and I saw good signs of improvement in our last two outings. Tonight it was difficult against fully committed players and their great fans. That late goal would have killed a bull, but once again we showed great spirit."
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