Northern Ireland Women produced a gritty, resilient and skilful display to defeat Ukraine Women in the first instalment of their two-leg UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 play-off this evening.
Goals from Rachel Furness and Simone Magill were enough to secure a famous victory at the Kolos Stadium in Kovalivka.
Participating in their first ever play-off for a major tournament, Northern Ireland started brightly. Kirsty McGuinness fired a decent cross into the area which just evaded Nadene Caldwell at the back post.
Furness pounced after just five minutes to make it 1-0 to Northern Ireland. Ukraine holding midfielder Tamila Khimich played a poor pass forward and the attacking midfielder nipped in to steer the ball past Ukraine keeper Iryna Sanina. The ball hit the keeper’s foot on the way into the net but Furness rightly claimed the goal.
Ukraine then pushed forward in search of an equaliser. Rebecca Holloway made a couple of timely interceptions in quick succession, while down the other end her looping shot was easily collected by Sanina.
Ukraine equalised on 22 minutes when their captain and star player Darya Apanashchenko flicked a header past Northern Ireland keeper Jackie Burns into the bottom corner. The midfielder got on the end of a pinpoint cross from Iya Andrushchak to grab her 61st goal for her country.
On the half-hour mark Furness, who was clearly hobbling, was replaced by Chloe McCarron in the middle of the park and she quickly settled into the game, spreading the play when possible.
Burns comfortably grabbed a shot from Khimich moments before the half-time whistle was blown by German referee Riem Hussein.
Just after the break Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan broke down the left and fired the ball across the face of goal. Magill just failed to connect with it.
The Northern Ireland defence stood firm with veterans Ashley Hutton, Julie Nelson and Sarah McFadden working tirelessly alongside wing backs Holloway and Rebecca McKenna.
Magill fired an effort wide before Burns comfortably saved from Khimich before a Callaghan header was cleared off the line.
On 57 minutes Northern Ireland took the lead again when Magill got on the end of a McFadden flick-on, forced her way past her marker and controlled the ball on her chest before neatly clipping the ball high into the net past Sanina from 10 yards. It was a lovely finish.
Ten minutes later Burns pushed away a free-kick from Apanashchenko before a last ditch tackle from Hutton snuffed out a Ukraine attack.
Ukraine substitute Nadia Kunina just failed to connect with a clever through ball before McKenna was chopped down by Khimich as she threatened to break free down the right. It was a cynical foul, however the ref only gave a yellow card to the Ukrainian midfielder.
With minutes remaining Khimich fired in a rasping long range effort which Burns got her fingertips to – and the resulting corner was eventually cleared.
It was backs to the wall in the four minutes of injury time, however the girls in green and white held their nerve and held on for a deserved victory.
Shiels, who urged his players not to celebrate at the final whistle, will now be plotting to finish the job when the second leg is played at Seaview on Tuesday night.
Northern Ireland Women: Jackie Burns, Rebecca Holloway, Sarah McFadden, Julie Nelson, Ashley Hutton, Rebecca McKenna, Marissa Callaghan (captain), Nadene Caldwell, Simone Magill, Rachel Furness, Kirsty McGuinness. Substitutes: (used) Chloe McCarron, Ciara Watling, Laura Rafferty, Samantha Kelly; (unused) Rebecca Flaherty, Emma McMaster, Toni Leigh Finnegan, Louise McDaniel, Emily Wilson, Danielle Maxwell, Kerry Anne Beattie.
Ukraine: Iryna Sanina, Anastasiya Filenko, Olha Basanska, Nicole Kozlova, Lyubov Shmatko, Iya Andrushchak, Olha Ovdiychuk, Darya Apanashchenko, Roksolana Kravchuk, Tamila Khimich, Darya Kravets. Substitutes: Daryna Bondarchuk (GK), Kateryna Samson (GK), Iryna Podolska, Anna Petryk, Veronika Andrukhiv, Yana Kalinina, Olha Boichenko, Nadiya Kunina, Anna Voronina, Natiya Pantsulaya, Anastasiya Voronina, Yana Malakhova.