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Wonderful Weir helps City and WSL deliver statement of intent in league's first Manchester derby

5:09 PM WAT 07/09/2019
Manchester City women
The Scotland international produced a strike worthy of winning any game as the Etihad welcomed over 31,000 fans for City's league opener

“It’s going to be a massive start isn’t it?” an excitable Jackie Groenen, one of Manchester United’s summer signings, told the Guardian this week, her interview making up just one of the huge FA Women’s Super League pull-out previews in this weekend’s national papers.

And when a player like Groenen – who has a Euro 2017 winners’ medal, has played in huge UEFA Women’s Champions League fixtures for Bayern Munich and also featured in this summer’s World Cup final for the Netherlands as they lost to the USA – says a game is massive, you know it’s massive.

For the teams, the opening weekend of the season is all about making a statement of your intent for on-field success.

While for some time they struggled to do so, Manchester City did that at the Etihad as they hosted rivals United in the WSL's first ever Manchester derby, defeating them 1-0 thanks to a sublime second half strike from Caroline Weir.

But Saturday was, most importantly, a statement of intent from the FA themselves.

For years, the FA have pondered how best to market the women’s game in England.

When the Lionesses finished third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the interest was clearly there, with the BBC claiming that 11.9 million viewers watched some part of their journey.

This summer, that interest was even greater, with 11.7 million viewers tuning in just for England’s 2-1 defeat to the USA in the semi-finals. There could not have been greater pressure on the FA to capitalise on the momentum.

But capitalise they did. Days after the Lionesses returned home from France, it was announced that launch of the FA Women’s Super League, boasting a new name after Barclays agreed a £10 million ($12.3m) deal to be the title sponsor, would coincide with the men’s international break.

It’s opening fixtures were just as exciting: two London derbies on tomorrow’s agenda, with Arsenal hosting West Ham and Chelsea and Tottenham playing at Stamford Bridge, but Saturday was the main course.

An attendance of over 20,000 was expected in the north west, set to smash the previous WSL record of 5,265, achieved by Brighton when they hosted Arsenal at the Amex back in April.

By the time kick-off rolled around, some 31,213 filled the bottom and middle tiers of the Etihad stadium, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just one of many who turned up for the occasion.

He will have been impressed with what he saw, too. While Solskjaer’s team are often criticised for their lacklustre approach to games, Casey Stoney’s side were by no means over-awed by the occasion that marked the club’s first ever WSL game.

“It is all we have been talking about for three weeks: ‘Let’s smash City, get that out of the way’,” Groenen said before the game, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but the attitude served United well as they created the better of the openings throughout the game.

Jane Ross, a former Citizen herself, should have scored midway through the first half, though Ellie Roebuck pulled off a fantastic save – one that will have been all the more sweeter for her given England manager Phil Neville was on the sidelines.

It was a moment of the highest quality that those casual fans tuning into a women’s football game for perhaps the first time - or one of the first times - will have been impressed with.

The same can be said of the game’s opening and only goal. After watching United create a plethora of chances in the first half, Weir, Georgia Stanway and Janine Beckie were left feeding off scraps for City.

But just moments after half time, Weir produced another moment of quality worthy of such an occasion, sending a stunning strike from all of 25 yards beyond the reach of Mary Earps and into the top corner.

It was a goal that deflated United massively as City, champions in 2016 and current holders of both the FA and League Cup, turned the screw and asserted their dominance over their newly-promoted rivals.

"It’s only right that the club is supporting us by playing at the Etihad,” Steph Houghton told Goal earlier this week.

"We’ve got people that want to come and watch us play. We won trophies last season, we’ve played really good football."

City weren’t at their best today, but they produced glimpses of quality that should keep fans coming back and help the FA tackle the attendance issue that has puzzled them for many years.