The dust has of course settled now. It is there for all to see – Wolves in the Group Stages of the Europa League. Maps are being scoured, routes being planned and holiday requests being lodged firmly in managers’ diaries – we’re going on a European tour.
This, the result of a bit of a scratchy 2-1 home victory over Torino, with Wolves coming out on top 5-3 on aggregate. 5-3 feels ever so slightly un-Nuno-like, but the fact we’ve managed to secure victory over a side with a more recent European past than ourselves, in a summer where competitive fixtures began on Thursday 25 July, is remarkable. There is nothing to fall back on as some kind of familiar feeling to do with all of this – it’s just surreal.
There was a job to be done at Molineux last night though and one familiar pattern did prevail – we started slowly. Teams have begun to figure out that we tend to feel our way into games and Torino, Manchester United and Burnley have all roared out of the traps at Molineux. It’s been unsettling and a little disconcerting to be frank. Torino knew if they were going to get anything out of the game, an early goal would set the wheels in motion. Molineux gets the jitters as badly as any ground in the country. But, one way or another we resisted.
Jesus Vallejo was having as dodgy a game as a Wolves player has had so far this season – and there have been a few – but the beauty of the system is there is no single point of failure. If certain component parts are grinding their way through a performance, then the rest will drag them along. Conor Coady, Willy Boly and in particular Romain Saiss all seemed to metaphorically pick Vallejo up on their back and carry him through the first half. That’s not a negative – players will have bad games and Vallejo is slowly integrating himself into a new style, system and culture. The essence of a team is that they look after each other – we will need to lean on each other at times this season, especially with the size of the squad.
We will always have a wildcard with Adama Traore in the team though. At any given point, no matter the flow of the game’s current, Traore can drag his teams into an advantageous position. His powerful run into the box that could (should?) have led to the opening goal, galvanised the team and allowed us to wrestle some authority in the tie. The other player on top of his game from an attacking sense, was Raul Jimenez. Jimenez has certainly saved his best for the Europa League this season, but this was his best performance of the season, in arguably the most important fixture we’ve had.
Whether it was fighting off centre backs, twisting and turning in that inimitable style or giving us the lead, Jimenez was centre of attention. He has this incredible knack of positioning himself perfectly to receive the ball out of defence. There was one moment in the second half when he was surrounded by three defenders and the touchline, but still somehow squeezed the ball back to a Wolves shirt. The finish for his goal was delightful too, far more difficult than it looked from well ahead of the front post.
The other player that set the seal on this performance for me was Saiss, who now has to start on Sunday for me. He’s not the headline-grabber that Ruben Neves might be, but when the going gets tough, he delves into his reserves to ensure he is performing to the required level. His passing range is perfectly good for the job he;s required to do – you just might not get a sensational 30-yard screamer from him. His appearances so far though have been excellent whenever he’s called upon – all the talk of Besiktas coming in for him was worrying but hopefully it’s all been put to bed.
With the draw now done, there seems to be a genuine path out of the group stage. Besiktas, Braga and Slovan Bratislava certainly don’t strike fear into the heart of fans, but they also offer up some exciting trips for us all to indulge in . The famed, feverish Turkish atmosphere, the famous cliff which engulfs Braga’s home – Bratislava may not be a destination to any of us it seems.
It’s certainly given this season that extra sense of wonder and awe that every football fan deserves to hold, a feeling that was sadly taken away from thousands in the North Manchester area this week. At a poignant time in English league football, perhaps now is exactly the time to just sit down and take in the fact we are so fortunate to be in this position. The last time I saw Wolves playing Bury, Steve Bull had just scored his final Wolves goal. How times change.