PARIS (AFP) – Italy scraped a draw against the Republic of Ireland to join Germany, Denmark and Serbia as the latest teams to secure 2010 World Cup places on a drama-laden penultimate batch of qualifiers.
This quartet join already-qualified England, Spain and the Netherlands, leaving two automatic berths from the continent still up for grabs heading into Wednesday's last throw of the South Africa dice.
Russia, beaten 1-0 by ten-man Germany in Moscow, and the Republic of Ireland, are among the teams assured of places in November's two-leg play-offs.
France, beaten on penalties in the 2006 final by Italy, are also in the play-offs after routing part-timers the Faroe Islands 5-0 to book second place in Group Seven behind Serbia, who trounced Romania by the same scoreline.
The Irish came desperately close to pulling off a major upset in Dublin as Sean St Ledger headed them into a 2-1 lead with only three minutes to go, only for Alberto Gilardino to level on the whistle.
|Aiden McGeady (L) of Italy vies for the ball with Keith Doyle of the Republic of Ireland during their World Cup Quailifer at Croke Park in Dublin (AFP photo)|
That put the world champions into an unassailable lead in Group Eight with Ireland as runners-up.
Italy coach Marcello Lippi praised the Azzurri's "great performance".
He added: "If we had lost it would have been a big injustice because we played with passion, character and enthusiasm."
Gilardino predicted Italy could go all the way again in 2010.
"We struggled but the result is even better for that. At the end we deserved the draw," the Fiorentina striker said.
"We can hope to go all the way, the basis of this squad is the same as the one that won in 2006 but we've added some young players and some good players.
"Now we'll go to South Africa in good spirits and with hope to win it again."
Earlier, three-time world champions Germany ensured their participation in next year's World Cup with a game to spare after a gritty defeat of Guus Hiddink's Russia.
Miroslav Klose's first-half goal booked Germany's ticket with Joachim Loew's team reduced to ten men when Jerome Boateng was sent packing after receiving a second yellow card with 20 minutes remaining.
The win gave secured top spot for Germany in Group Four ahead of their final qualifier against Finland in Hamburg.
Loew reflected: "The team did well. We needed a bit of luck, but we have made sure of qualifying for the World Cup and you can't ask for more."
Goal-hero Klose added: "We dealt well with the pressure here - it was not an easy place to play."
Hiddink said: "We cannot be happy with the result of course, but the team showed character in the second half.
"We were not good enough at finishing our chances or on the counter-attack.
"But we still have a chance to qualify for the finals in November's play-off."
Denmark got the better of neighbours Sweden 1-0 to book their ticket as winners of Group One while Portugal moved into second and a shot at making the play-offs with a 3-0 win over Hungary.
Already-qualified England's run of eight straight qualifying wins came to a sticky end in Dnipropetrovsk with Serhiy Nazarenko earning Ukraine a 1-0 win.
Fabio Capello's Group Six winners were reduced to ten men in the first quarter of an hour when goalkeeper Robert Green was sent off for a professional foul following a mistake by Rio Ferdinand.
Aaron Lennon made way for replacement shot-stopper David James whose first job was to prevent Andriy Shevchenko converting the spotkick - but he didn't have to work too hard as Shevchenko fluffed his lines, hitting the post.
Spain, who had already guaranteed their place in South Africa as winners of Group Five, came through their trip to Armenia with a 2-1 win to extend their unbeaten run to nine from nine qualifiers.
Bosnia-Herzegovina secured a play-off berth with a 2-0 win in Estonia to make sure of their position as runners-up to the Euro 2008 champions.
In other action, Switzerland boosted their prospects of making it to the finals with a 3-0 defeat of Luxembourg.
Ottmar Hitzfeld's side are in pole position to qualify as Group Two winners, going into Wednesday three points clear of former European champions Greece.
Group Three is too close to call with Slovakia on 19 points, two ahead of Slovenia, with the same gap back to the Czech Republic.