Northern Ireland 0-0 Malta: Hosts frustrated in Euro qualifying opener

Northern Ireland opened their Euro 2025 qualifying campaign with a disappointing and frustrating goalless draw with Malta at Windsor Park.

Simone Magill had an effort ruled out for handball late in the first half.

The Aston Villa striker had a penalty appeal waved away after the restart as the hosts struggled to break down the side ranked 87th in the world.

Tanya Oxtoby's side will have to regroup before Tuesday's second qualifier in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It was a first half that had shades of the first leg of Northern Ireland's play-off win in Montenegro, where Oxtoby's side dominated possession but struggled to break the Maltese defence down.

Rebecca McKenna's half-volley sailed harmlessly wide, and Magill was inches away from converting when Janice Xuereb spilled Demi Vance's cross.

Chloe McCarron fired well over in another half chance and Joely Andrews came closest to the breakthrough when her effort forced the back peddling Xuereb into a save.

The big talking point of the half came just before half-time when Magill slipped in the area, regathered her feet and poked the ball into the bottom corner.

The Aston Villa striker wheeled away in celebration but Italian referee Maria Marotta adjudged Magill handled the ball in the build-up. Replays suggest contact with Magill's hand was minimal, if any at all.

Struggles continue after restart

It was Malta who had the first attack after the restart when Shone Zammit's arrowed effort flew narrowly wide of the returning Jackie Burns' upright.

Northern Ireland almost took the lead when Vance's cross was spilled by Xuereb on the line and Magill, quickest to the follow up, went down in the area when caught by Alishia Sultana but referee Marotta waved play on.

In truth, Northern Ireland's creative struggles continued, despite Magill being a stretch away from getting the ball past the onrushing Xuereb from Vance's through ball.

Oxtoby introduced debutant Connie Scofield in midfield in a bid to add fresh legs, and her lay-off led to McCarron's long-range effort being well saved by Xuereb.

Northern Ireland continued to press forward late in the game, but Malta, promoted from League C and on a 12-game unbeaten run, held firm.

After optimism ahead of the game, the result means a disappointing start as Northern Ireland look to reach back-to-back Euro finals.

At the full-time whistle, the visiting players celebrated an impressive draw while Northern Ireland looked like a side who knew they had missed an opportunity to build momentum at home.