Veselji 36, 40 pen.; Attard 84
NORTHERN IRELAND 1
C. Formosa; A. Magri Overend, C. Gauci (90 K. Mohnani), M. Grima, A. Attard (85 J. Attard), M. Veselji, A. Garzia, C. Zammit Lonardelli, M. Ellul (72 O. Spiteri), B. Sciberras (85 J. Sixsmith), J. Engerer (85 J. Carbone).
L. Hughes; T. Hume, A. Donnelly, K. Balmer, S. Mcclelland (46 D. Mcclelland), E. Galbraith, J. Scott (85 H. Anderson), C. Boyd-Munce (46 D. Smyth), R. Walde, B. Crowe (46 P. Lane), C. Johnston (85 C. Conn).
Referee Milovan Milacic (Montenegro FA).
Yellow cards Formosa, Balmer.
The Malta U-21 enjoyed a superlative start in the 2023 UEFA U-21’s European qualifiers after overcoming Northern Ireland 4-1, at the Centenary Stadium.
While this victory continues to increase the already existing euphoria following the Malta’s senior team’s 3-0 thrashing of Cyprus in the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifications, it also highlights the continuous growth of the Maltese talent, especially at youth level.
It was a much-needed response after the team’s two straight defeats at the hands of Qatar and Bosnia and Herzegovina during their training camp, last June.
New coach Gilbert Agius could not have asked for a better start to his new adventure at the helm as this was his competitive debut in a tough group that comprises the likes of Spain and Russia as well.
After a strong start by Northern Ireland side, Malta started to grasp this game into their hands and went on to make the most of their chances to collect three valuable points.
In the previous qualifying campaign, these two teams had met with Malta snatching a point in the away game before losing 2-0 at the Centenary Stadium.
Northern Ireland made their intentions clear from the start as they started to dictate possession but without ever creating any clear-cut opportunities.
Ryan Walde tried to threaten Malta from close-range but his effort went wide, after five minutes.
The Northern Ireland side was struggling to break down Malta’s backline and instead they banked on their shooting options, but once again they could not find the target.
To their surprise, it was Malta who forged ahead when Jake Engerer capitalised on Mattia Veselji’s lobbed header inside the box to slot the ball from point-blank range.
The goal came as a cold shower for Northern Ireland who from that point onwards were gradually disappearing from the playing picture.
Malta became the better team on the field, dictating proceedings and pushing to extend their lead.
They made their pressure count in the 36th minute when Bradley Sciberras whipped in a cross from the left-hand side and Floriana forward Veselji pushed the ball into the back of the net.
Three minutes later, Veselji, who was on the books of Serbian club OFK Beograd, extended Malta’s lead after converting from the penalty spot.
A couple of late efforts from the Northern Ireland side before the half-time whistle were not enough for them to pull themselves into the game.
At the restart, Northern Ireland made three changes as they were looking to give a purpose to this game after their disastrous opening 45 minutes.
Nonetheless, it was Malta who almost scored the game’s next goal when an Engerer effort struck the crossbar before ricocheting into the Northern Ireland goalkeeper.
Northern Ireland managed to pull one back when substitute Patrick Lane fired an effort from the edge of the area that stunned goalkeeper Cain Formosa.
Moments later, Lane – who plays for Fleetwood Town U-21’s team – forced Formosa into action again with another close-range effort but the Malta goalkeeper was not to be beaten this time around.
Veselji could have registered a hat-trick but after making his way into the box, his effort was blocked by goalkeeper Liam Hughes.
Malta still managed to find a fourth through a brilliant long-range shot by captain Ayrton Attard to seal his team’s victory and three points in this game.
The U-21’s selection will now travel to Russia where they will play their second group game, next Tuesday.