In the end, we had to take a sip of the medicine we’ve been dishing out so readily over the last few months. The thing is, I don’t think any of us saw it coming.
Let’s address one thing first – this was a defensive and negative as any of us have probably seen Wolves play. Make no mistake, we were more defensive than a mid-80s TV personality on trial for you-know-what. We didn’t help that view of our performance by not making the most of the opportunities to break out of defence that we had. But to finish this one with two shots at goal, with one of them on target – struggling to remember the second shot at goal by the way – you have to ‘be fair to the game’, as Nuno said.
But that’s not to discredit us in any way. Chelsea may not be as elite as they once were, but they are as good at recovering and retaining the ball as anybody. We may have appeared defensive, but each time we looked to break out and counter, we were hounded out of possession, or the extreme pace that Chelsea have in defence would snuff things out. Going back to the Molineux game, when we certainly couldn’t have been accused of parking the bus, Chelsea were probably the best I’d seen at keeping the ball, Manchester City aside.
Maurizio Sarri may not be cultivating the success he may have envisaged after his promising start to the season, but he’s widely respected throughout the footballing world, most pertinently by the Godfather of coaching himself, Pep Guardiola. If only he didn’t have a pathological need to be so honest in his interviews, then he might not have sullied himself by describing us as not organised – there is a semblance of a point in what he’s saying as any side who defends so deep will naturally restrict the number of chances an opposition creates, but Nuno is nothing if not meticulous and it’s quite frankly disrespectful of him to suggest Nuno hasn’t taken the time to set his team up properly.
We were also up against a player who can only be described as the most talented individual in the league on current form, a player who just never looks likely to lose the ball unless he passes it to someone else or gets fouled. Eden Hazard may be on the outer edges of the absolute top brass of world football. but as far as the Premier League is concerned he’s out on his own in my book. Maybe he had just had enough by the end of the game and decided he wasn’t going to allow us to take all three points. But such talent can have its way like that.
Hazard wasn’t the story of this fixture though. This was a tale of collective determination and will to ensure we weren’t beaten. I think I can speak on behalf of all Wolves fans when I say we were full of confidence going into this one as fans. We just seem to have something extra against the bigger sides. I generally liken it to arrogance, but here I felt genuinely like we had the ability, set up and quality to prevent Chelsea from scoring. It may not have taken us all the way, but we were more than a match for them defensively.
That confidence comes from just having a stable of excellent footballers. No one shirked a challenge and nobody played with any degree of inferiority against their opposite number. Even with Hazard in direct combat, Romain Saiss lifted himself to his level and defended magnificently. We always think in this country that Johnny Foreigner is going to find it tough to handle the physicality of the Premier League but Saiss leaves natives of this land in his shadow. in this regard. He’s the footsoldier who is versed in trench warfare and his best performances always seem to come in those backs-to-the-wall, stretching every sinue kind of games – Bristol City and Middlesbrough away last season, the return fixture earlier in the season. Born a Frenchman, but in a land becoming increasingly less fond of immigrants, our man of Moroccan descent has probably fought his way through plenty to get to where he is now. Hell, he was playing in the regional leagues as recently as 2013. Je ne sais quoi it is not. This war dog spirit is welcome in spades.
In front of him, Leander Dendoncker, our pig-farming action man, clearly a man happy to get his hands dirty in the pursuit of victory. This was probably his best performance in a Wolves shirt and he looks every inch the kind of player who could don the shirt of a club of the stature of Chelsea. He does very little below an exceptional level and he hounded Chelsea;s midfield as if he were their own shadow.
There is plenty to be made of the other individuals on show but this was a team effort, embodied by the two highlighted above. Very little of this performance was about the artistry that we have in abundance – realistically, we let ourselves down in that regard – but Nuno believes that the clean sheet is the foundation that all performances should be built upon and with this in mind, it very nearly bore fruit for us. The only chance of any note that Chelsea mustered, wasn’t even of their own doing, but instead was a Raul Jimenez header inadvertently flicked across his own goalmouth.
Nuno now has the mother of all selection dilemmas, with Ryan Bennett ready and available to slot into the tight centre-back slot he has made his own over the season. but Saiss has banished any concerns there may have been from pre-season about his ability to slot in there. We build up to our biggest individual game since the Play-Off final in 2003, with a realistic chance of silverware in sight if victory is secured.