Getting shirty: Giorgio Chiellini of Italy and Ireland's Richard Dunne compete for possession during the World Cup qualifier at Croke Park last night

In the end it didn't matter what happened here between Ireland and Italy last night. Actually, in the beginning it didn't matter what happened here, thanks to Cyprus's 4-1 win over Bulgaria earlier in the evening, which meant that Giovanni Trapattoni's team were guaranteed second place in Group Eight regardless of the result. As it was, they played the match anyway – well, it would have been harsh on the 70,640 who paid in to do otherwise – and just as well, as the two teams played out a pretty entertaining 2-2 draw to seal Ireland's play-off spot.

It was no more than they deserved. In two games against the world champions now, Ireland have been at least on a par with Marcello Lippi's side and indeed probably even a little better. Certainly more competitive. They worked reliably hard here and mixed that effort with no small amount of guile at times. For all that, their early goal by Glenn Whelan was more or less their only shot on target for the evening before Sean St Leger's 86th-minute goal. Richard Dunne worried Gianluigi Buffon with a header in the second half, although worry is probably putting it a little more dramatically than is strictly necessary. Let's say he piqued the slicked one's interest.

The free kick that led to Whelan's goal after eight minutes contained everything that's good about Trappatoni's Ireland. It was doggedly won and devilishly conceived. Robbie Keane was wearing his impish hat for the night and delighted in keeping Nicola Legrottaglie constantly turning and looking over his shoulder, like an old sweet shop owner who has been sent to look on the top shelf while Keane filled his pockets from the countertop. This one time left Legrottaglie a yard short of a ball played down the right channel and when Keane got there first, he got clipped for his impertinence.

Now, Irish football supporters are a long-suffering bunch. There was a lot of talk during the week of invoking the spirit of September 2001, of that win over Holland that we're all going to tell grandkids about one day. The sad truth of it all is that since then, your average Irish spectator has had to sit through a generation's worth of painful, unimaginative huffing and puffing. It's the Irish fan's lot nowadays, long accepted and hardily borne.

So when Liam Lawrence disguised the resultant free kick beautifully and instead of crossing it into the box pushed it sideways for Glenn Whelan to thump into the top corner of Gianluigi Buffon's net, you could forgive the crowd for being momentarily stunned. Throughout the Brian Kerr days and the long Steve Staunton nights, it was impossible to remember Ireland ever once trying something similar. A little ingenuity goes a mighty long way. Whelan's strike sailed home and Ireland were on their way.

No matter what happens now, wherever this road ends, a goal like Whelan's last night can stand as a taste of Trapattoni's legacy here. Ireland are organised now, they play like a team that has had thought and time and expertise put into them. They're not especially fun to watch but that's not what he was brought here for. The players know their jobs and they stick to them. Imagine – it was this straight-forward all along.

Of course, the old saw about professional sport says that the other crowd are getting paid to come to work as well. Italy walked through lengthy enough phases of last night without looking terribly perturbed one way or the other about what was going on. For much of the first half and most of the second, Ireland were sole purveyors of hustle and they owned the bustle as well. But all they needed was one chance and it came just short of the half hour, when Mauro Camoranesi – who for the most part had been otherwise engaged being turned into a figure-of-eight knot by Aiden McGeady – found himself free at a corner and headed past Shay Given.

That looked like being that though and the game sort of dawdled through the second half before St Leger got on the end of a Stephen Hunt free kick. Then the place went orbital. Then Alberto Gilardino sneaked the equaliser. Then the place went silent and we all went home.