Sign up to the Irish FA Newsletter today

Keep up-to-date with all the latest news from the Irish FA including ticket updates, match information, competitions, articles and much more.
Thank you

Friday 05 Apr 2024
Northern Ireland set to face ‘dangerous’ Malta

Tanya Oxtoby believes Malta will provide “a great challenge” for Northern Ireland when their UEFA Women’s Euro 2025 qualification campaign gets under way in Belfast later today.

Northern Ireland and the Maltese are in League B Group 3 for the European Qualifiers phase of the UEFA Women’s Nations League along with top seeds Portugal and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The opening group match for Oxtoby’s team and Malta is being staged at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park this evening (7 o’clock kick-off).

The Maltese were promoted from League C back in the autumn after a strong Nations League campaign in which they scored plenty of goals and kept clean sheets in five of their six matches.

“Malta will provide a great challenge… they have some exciting young players in their squad, and I believe they will be dangerous opponents,” said the Northern Ireland senior women’s team manager.

And in her Manager’s View column in the matchday programme, she also points out: “They play in a similar way to us, deploying similar patterns, and it will be interesting to see who can wrest control of tonight’s game and come away with the desired result.”

Oxtoby’s preparations for the game have been hampered by a virus which has hit both players and staff this week.

However, she is hopeful the worst of it is over and she will have most of her 23-strong squad available for selection tonight.

Northern Ireland will definitely be without Glentoran Women striker Kerry Beattie, who has withdrawn from the squad after picking up an injury. Beattie has been replaced by club mate Emily Wilson.

The manager said it is an exciting time for the squad with a new qualification campaign getting under way.

She told media yesterday: "It's the first game of a campaign, you are at home so you want to put in a really good performance.

"I'd be really pleased to get the result given the challenges that we've had this week. It will give us a good platform to move forward with."

The senior women’s team boss said she was pleased to have Reading Women goalkeeper Jackie Burns back in the squad after a lengthy absence through injury.

She also revealed London City Lionesses midfielder Connie Scofield, who has been called up to the senior squad for the first time, and Burnley Women midfielder Brenna McPartlan, who earned her one senior cap to date back in 2017, have been welcome additions to the group.

The bulk of the Malta squad play their club football in their homeland. Eight of them star for Birkirkara Women, a club based in the city of Birkirkara in central Malta, while another four are from Swieqi United, who are based in the town of Swieqi in the north of the country.

However, they have a potential new superstar of the game in their ranks in 19-year-old Inter Milan forward Haley Bugeja, who has scored 19 goals for her country across 27 appearances.

Another exciting prospect, Kailey Willis (20), also plays her club football in Italy with Venezia. She has scored three senior international goals in eight games.

The more experienced players in Manuela Tesse’s squad include midfielder Rachel Cuschieri, who stars for Sampdoria in Italy. The 31-year-old has earned 94 caps to date, scoring 14 goals.

Goalkeeper Janice Xuereb, who plays her club football with Birkirkara, has plenty of international games under her belt, too. If she plays tonight the 27-year-old will win her 66th cap. Her club mate Stephania Farrugia (32) will earn cap number 97 if she marshals the defence in front of her.

Northern Ireland and Lewes Women midfielder Caragh Hamilton could potentially come up against club mate Maria Farrugia. The 23-year-old striker has netted seven times for Malta in 40 appearances.

Oxtoby will no doubt be targeting maximum points in tonight’s game ahead of a tricky trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Northern Ireland are set to play the Bosnians in their second B3 game on Tuesday (9 April). The game at the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Training Centre in Zenica is due to start at 3.30pm CET (2.30pm BST).