England qualifies for World Cup with 10-goal demolition
Jorginho's last-gasp penalty miss against Switzerland last time out meant Italy headed into its final Group C game at Windsor Park level on points with the Swiss, ahead only on goal difference.
And while Switzerland managed to beat Bulgaria on Tuesday (AEDT), Italy was frustrated by Ian Baraclough's side in Belfast.
A star of the Euro 2020 success, Federico Chiesa went closest to breaking the deadlock for Roberto Mancini's side as Italy – who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – had to settle for a place in the play-offs.
Lorenzo Insigne's sublime pass put Giovanni Di Lorenzo through inside the opening 10 minutes, though from a tight angle, the full-back's effort was caught between a cross and a shot, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell able to parry away.
That set the tone for Italy, who had plenty of possession and territory but lacked a cutting edge. Matters would have been made more difficult early in the second half if not for Gianluigi Donnarumma.
With Insigne having dragged wide from a presentable chance, Northern Ireland almost took the lead at the other end – Donnarumma making a superb stop to deny George Saville.
Peacock-Farrell judged a difficult Domenico Berardi free-kick, though was beaten by Chiesa's curling attempt soon after. Unfortunately for Italy, it sailed the wrong side of the upright.
Despite Mancini throwing on the cavalry, Chiesa's chance was the closest Italy went, and they were fortunate Leonardo Bonucci was on hand to clear Conor Washington's late shot off the line.
The Azzurri now face two play-off games in March to try and qualify for the tournament in Qatar.