Irish manager Giovanni Trapattoni almost pulled off the surprise of the World Cup qualifying rounds when Ireland led World Cup holders Italy into the closing minutes of an enthralling World Cup encounter at Croke Park in Dublin.

A last-minute Italian equalizer meant that the Irish will now go the playoff route, but judging by this performance, not too many teams will
want to tangle with the boys in green.

This was simply Ireland''s best performance of the campaign, full of heart and courage, highlighted by the extraordinary performance of John O'Shea at the back, Aiden McGeady on the left side of midfield and Robbie Keane, who ran his heart out.

Italy will be glad to have salvaged a draw. Even before Ireland went ahead 2-1 through a diving Sean St. Ledger header, they had looked like the better side throughout.

One wonders what this team would be like if Stephen Ireland could ever be persuaded to don the green in midfield. This team  still lacks the creative flair he would bring to the side.

But 2-2 against the reigning world champions is no small feat, and Ireland — when they get over the disappointment of not actually defeating the world champions — will look back on an amazing qualifying series that saw them start out with little hope of cracking the top two and ending with them well ahead of Bulgaria with one more match to go and a certain playoff game achieved.

Make no mistake: This Irish side is superbly drilled and Trapattoni has got the tactics right in very game so far. You would have gotten very long odds on an Irish side going unbeaten through the qualifying competition, but that now looks on the cards with only  the game against Montenegro to come.

Roll on the World Cup qualifier. These  boys in green have nothing to fear. I can see this team in South Africa.