This was as regulation a victory as you get, which is what makes it a unique victory where Wolves are concerned – we haven’t always done regulation in the Championship for a long while.
If you could handpick the two games that would follow the Aston Villa defeat, I’m sure many would have come up with Reading and Burton Albion at home. Whilst Reading simply didn’t offer anything by the way of opposition, Burton really aren’t in a position to muster up a real siege on Wolves’ goal. It’s a stark indication of Reading’s plight that Burton managed a whole lot more than they did in their respective 90 minutes.
What could be said about a game that as a 90-minute spectacle will fall by the wayside in terms of our memories? Well there were a few moments that will ensure it sticks in there for a little while longer.
How lovely to have you back with us Helder! There have been a few false starts and the engine has coughed and spluttered but over the course of the last two games, Costa has finally revved himself into form. We all know the Costa that we fell in love with last season and it’s as if his shadow has been playing in his stead at times this season, but here the magnetic first touch, the ballerina-like twists and turns and the clinical edge he showed previously was all there to be enjoyed. What I love most about Costa is that he beats players in the feint and the body swerve, he beats players with the potential of what he could do rather than what he ends up doing. He often resembles a guy in a dance-off, you half expect the ground beneath him to be flashing different colours. That momentary lapse in balance from an opposition defender makes up Costa’s mind for him and he’s off without a second’s pause.
Benik Afobe’s presence in the line-up shifts the focus in our attack and it brought Costa much closer to his best mate Ivan Cavaleiro. Having spent time together at their last four clubs – Wolves, Monaco, Deportivo La Coruna and Benfica – they can expect to have a much better understanding of each other than most and they certainly play that way. They play on the edge of a school playground style game, mostly looking for each other, without hindering the team. Afobe being more of an ‘on-the-shoulder’ type of striker means the onus to come and collect the ball rests more on Costa and Cavaleiro. Afobe is a willing recipient of the ball into feet, but he isn’t a natural one and you can see he looks slightly uncomfortable doing this in comparison to Leo Bonatini. What can’t be argued with is Afobe’s prowess in front of goal…
The year is 2015 and Benik Afobe has recently joined Wolverhampton Wanderers to spearhead a push for promotion. With Kevin McDonald pulling the strings, Afobe has made a blistering start to life at the club, latching on to through balls and finishing with consummate ease.
You could have been forgiven for thinking we were stuck in a timewarp at around 3.41pm on Saturday 17 March 2018. We’ve seen this goal before – the slide-rule pass, the burst away from the defender and the accurate finish into the top corner – only this time there was a Portuguese twist, with Ruben Neves’ first official assist of the season. Much has been made of what Afobe takes away from our system, but here we saw what he gives to it. He may not be as involved as Bonatini, but his output individually far outweighs what Leo has produced in recent weeks and that’s taking nothing away from the Brazilian – they’re just different players.
I won’t mention the goal that was conceded as A) it was an irrelevance and B) I just don’t want to beat up any of our players at the moment. They don’t need that. They’re doing just fine, as that widening gap to 2nd place and then 3rd place demonstrates. What I do want to talk about is that man Neves…
On my Wolves Fancast debut I was asked who my favourite Wolves player other than Steve Bull was. Without a moment’s hesitation my response was Neves. This was just a few months into his Wolves career. But time should be no barometer of affection for a footballer. It’s the feeling they give you, the noises they make you utter, the absolute joy they bring. This game would simply be a footnote to our season if it wasn’t for the piece of pure magic that Neves produced late in the second half.
Watching a game from the stands, it’s not always appreciated that we have the best view in the house. We can see every single player on the pitch at any point in time. Participants in the game don’t have that luxury. Most of the game is being played out in their peripheral vision and the basic lack of eyes in the back of your head means you only get a view of half of the action at any one time, especially from the centre of midfield. This is the majesty of Neves. Someone once said Xavi of Barcelona played the game with wing mirrors on, such was his awareness of his surroundings. The same could be said of our Ruben. It may not have resulted in a goal, or even a shot and it probably won’t register on the statistics so wedded to a player’s performance levels in the modern footballing world. We’ve all seen it by now, but to witness live was to appreciate the true beauty of it all.
The game was in such a lull, ball moving sideways, to back to sideways to forward to back and Burton were clearly on a mission to protect their goal difference. If we were to score it needed something special to breach the lines as they’d wised up since the scoring of our first two goals. Enter Ruben Neves. Firstly: the vision. Most people watching Neves with the ball at his feet would not have caught Costa slipping away from his marker. Costa himself would surely not have made this move last season, such was the lack of quality from this area of the pitch. But Neves’ presence is an enabler in these situations. You make the run because there’s a good chance the ball will reach you. Even then, it was a decision made in hope rather than expectation…surely?
Secondly, the execution. ZING. Neves gets the ball out of his feet and streaks a ball straight into Costa’s path, bisecting defenders, finding a channel where previously there wasn’t one, as if the ball had carved it’s own path to Costa through force of will. So startled by this was Costa, he didn’t manage to sort his feet out to score. It may have deserved a goal, but part of me is glad that this pass will remain a little hidden. Much of the legend around the World Cup and European football comes from a bygone era, when all you knew of footballers was their name and a few legendary tales of their exploits. Nobody knew Toto Schillaci before Italia 90. Who’s this Gheorghe Hagi, the Maradona of the Carpathians? The Internet Age means we can make legends of players before they’ve achieved anything, but this classic Neves moment, a little of it will remain ours forever.
And so, we enter a break a little further away, a little more in the distance from the pack. Perhaps this team will become a Championship myth one day, an unattainable feast for Championship clubs to aspire to. They won’t get the record, but they’ll get the adulation no doubt.
The next time we play I’ll be on the other side of the world, I will miss games, but I endeavour to reach you in some shape or form, mostly thanks to Sky Sports and the Wolves love-in they appear to be having this season. Until then, enjoy some respite and we shall reconvene at Middlesbrough, where Nuno will be looking to exorcise another demon.