I couldn’t really shake the feeling of ‘meh’ before last night’s game. Wolves have been a little uninspiring of late. Granted we’ve had a winter break, but the return versus Leicester was underwhelming and the game prior to that rather conservative as well against Manchester United.
This and the prospect of facing bottom of the league Espanyol of Spain led to a rather laissez-faire feeling on approach to the game. We needed a pick-me-up. There was a distinct sense of priority on it from the playing side. In came Adama Traore and Joao Moutinho having been benched last weekend and it was arguably as strong as Wolves could have been, save for the patchy form of Diogo Jota – more on him later.
All the talk was of a comfortable stroll through a team who had much more important things on their mind. Nine changes to the Espanyol side who played Sevilla at the weekend said as much. But as many a fan or player will attest to, sometimes a game away from the relegation dogfight can act as a release and the sight of lesser-spotted players, less weighed down by the lack of quality in their performance in La Liga, will have given the Espanyol fans something fresh to support. They certainly didn’t look like a side low on confidence or quality in their approach play.
Wolves looked like what we have been though – a little laboured, a little predictable, and a little short of sharpness. Who said winter breaks were beneficial? It’s not based around anything other than my own feeling, but when we have run of games in a short space of time, the momentum of form we seem to build up in that time far outweighs any benefit of a week’s rest. This is time for players to start longing for the pitch again, even if they are tired. The saving grace of Willy Boly’s return will always give us a lovely foundation though and hearts certainly aren’t racing as much as they may have in recent weeks as opposition players head toward Rui Patricio’s goal. That is unless Raul Jimenez is skewing a volleyed pass from the touchline into our own penalty area and Patricio deciding a first time volley (?!) is the ideal course of action. This is why defenders tend to head the ball away Rui…
The beauty of football is that no matter which way a game seems to be going, the sport is subject to randomness and randomness can come in many forms. A deflection here, a mistake there. But randomness can also be a beautiful thing. Nowhere within Nuno’s pre-match notes do I suspect it has ‘Ruben Neves chest and volley from an Adama Traore cross cleared to the edge of the box’ as a tactical plan. But these are the scenarios football gives rise to. It was a balletic movement, from the moment Neves jostles free of his market and chests the ball, part of me is already celebrating. The synchronisation of movement is as fluid as a textbook would suggest. While his Derby first touch may have been slightly awry, the chest control here left the ball heading exactly where it needed to, right into the path of Neves’ swinging right boot. The rest was a formality. You just don’t save those. And so, Wolves decided to spark into life.
It’s a cruel trick of the Adama Traore complex, that if he is on the pitch, all arrows point to him. I made this point after he came on against Leicester and while he he is incredible, we can become a slave to the Traore tactic and the rest of our game can suffer. Nuno’s decision to introduce Leander Dendoncker felt negative, but it gave Jota the chance to move into what is clearly his favoured and best position, alongside Jimenez. Control was regained and from then on, the game was the procession we all hoped for. Diogo Jota is a marvellous footballer, all instinct and abstract movements. I genuinely don’t know who dribbles with the ball the way he does, almost making it up as he goes along, intent on nutmegging, rounding or simply running through opposition defenders. His final two goals harked at a player reborn, after what have been a number of lacklustre performances, it must be said.
This is all with a pinch of salt given the opposition and their current predicament, but this was essentially the perfect first leg performance. We were clinical, if not bombarding on their goal, while we didn’t give much away. It almost feels safe enough to call the second leg a foregone conclusion – I simply don’t see us not scoring a goal in Barcelona next week. If this can spark us back into life in domestic action, then we have a hell of a second half of the season to look forward to, but we need to kick into gear, sooner rather than later, or one hell of an opportunity will be rued for years to come.