Express & Star

European ambitions raise the stakes and adds more spice to the derby day dish

You have to go back an awfully long way to the last time both Villa and Wolves reached this point in a season with Europe in their sights.


The most recent was 1998, when a Villa team revitalised under John Gregory were climbing up the Premier League and Wolves, though still in the second tier, were heading toward an FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal.

Finding a time when both were contesting for European qualification through their league positions is nigh-on impossible. For that reason alone, it feels fair to paint tomorrow’s meeting as the most important between the Midlands rivals since June 2020 when a Leander Dendoncker goal kept Wolves within touching distance of the top four and left Villa mired in the relegation zone.

It is a chance for both teams to restore some momentum into seasons which suffered sobering blows prior to the international break.

Wolves will want to show the jolting FA Cup exit to Coventry has left no festering scars, while Villa are aiming to avoid going three league matches without a win for the first time.

All told, this feels a slightly bigger match for Unai Emery’s team, merely for the position they have established for themselves over the first three-quarters of the campaign.

Villa have not been lower than fifth in the Premier League table since thumping Brighton 6-1 on the final day of September. Since the start of December they have spent only a handful of days outside the top four.

Such progress has brought new pressures of which Emery’s team have largely handled well. Yet with the season now in the final stretch, they feel very much the hunted, the gaps to Tottenham and Manchester United beneath them much more of a focus than the now surely unbridgeable deficit to the three title challengers above.

Wolves, by contrast, are a team in pursuit of their rivals. That does not mean to say there isn’t pressure. Were their campaign to fizzle, there would clearly be disappointment, not least after the agony and frustration of Coventry.

There is not, however, the same level of expectation or opportunity as around Villa. Should Wolves qualify for Europe, it would feel a welcome bonus in a season which has surpassed expectations. Should Villa miss out on the top five and a likely place in the Champions League, there would be no hiding the disappointment.

This is a match between two squads hit hard by injuries, though it is Wolves who have the bigger worries with most of their forward line still sidelined.

Should Matheus Cunha be passed fit, the Brazilian is unlikely to start with the burden again likely to fall on Pablo Sarabia and Nathan Fraser, the latter a boyhood Villa supporter. The availability of Craig Dawson, rated as no better than 50/50 following a groin injury, also feels key.

Villa, without the injured Matty Cash and suspended John McGinn, will look to the likes of Ollie Watkins, Leon Bailey and Emi Martinez to again deliver big performances as the matches tick down and the stakes continue to rise.