While Saturday's 0-0 draw left Wolves facing an uphill challenge to secure a top-half Premier League finish for the third season running, for Villa it was another setback in their efforts to keep pace in the race for European qualification.
Having snatched victory in stoppage time when the clubs first met at Molineux back in December, Dean Smith’s men almost repeated the trick again. But after Rui Patricio had saved Ollie Watkins’ shot, Ezri Konsa blasted the rebound wide of the post. In many ways it was a fitting conclusion to a contest of which poor finishing was a feature.
As Villa boss Smith also later admitted, a winner would have been harsh on Wolves, who had enjoyed the better of the second half and were twice themselves left wondering how they hadn’t scored, first when Conor Coady and Romain Saiss combined to hit the post and then the target from barely a yard, before Coady was later denied by Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez at point-blank range.
That said, by half-time Nuno Espirito Santo’s visitors had been fortunate to still be in the match, after yet another opening 45 minutes in which they completely failed to answer the bell.
Just what exactly is the cause of Wolves’ continued first-half no-shows? Nuno admits he is struggling for answers.
It is hardly a recent phenomenon. At one stage last season, when Wolves consisted of a sturdier defence and more dependable attack, it almost appeared deliberate and a strength. Reach halfway on level terms and more often than not, victory followed. Opponents knew it too.
Yet in a season where things have not gone to plan, it has increasingly become a source of frustration and in the past week proven particularly costly in defeat at Manchester City and a disappointing draw at Newcastle.
On Saturday, Wolves were lucky a Villa team once again missing Jack Grealish lacked the necessary nous to take advantage, albeit they came mighty close, with both Watkins and Konsa striking the bar inside the first 15 minutes.
Delivering some complete performances must be among Wolves’ primary targets over the remaining 10 matches.
From a position where only a few weeks ago there appeared a very real danger of being dragged into a relegation scrap, recent performances have shown signs of progress. Since ending January with a dire 1-0 defeat at Crystal Palace, Wolves have now lost only once in seven matches and that was against the league’s runaway leaders, winning three and drawing the other three. In a season where their defence has often been less than watertight, Saturday also delivered their fourth clean sheet in nine games.
Though a top-10 finish now looks a tall order, a fixture list which features matches against all of the bottom five, coupled with the potential return of Daniel Podence, Willy Boly and – just possibly – Raul Jimenez soon after the international break, brings the possibility of things further improving before the campaign draws to a close.
At worst, the run-in should deliver any further clarity required on Wolves’ position heading toward the summer and a crucial transfer window.
Though far from the only issue, the need to source an effective back-up to Jimenez is already obvious. It would be fair to say Willian Jose is already facing a battle to convince Wolves it is worth triggering the £22million clause contained in the loan deal which saw him arrive from Real Socieded in January.
In eight Premier League appearances the Brazilian is yet to score and at Villa Park was unable to provide an effective link to Wolves’ attacking play which, once again, appeared disjointed and dependent on the individual flair of Adama Traore or more often Pedro Neto. All of Wolves’ big chances came from set pieces, with precious little created from open play.
So good is Jimenez, it is the misfortune of any striker now joining Wolves to be judged by his standards.
The same applies to Villa and Grealish. This was the fourth successive match Smith’s team had been without their skipper and they have taken four points and scored only two goals.
For the first time this season they have now gone two successive matches without finding the net and just as Grealish’s guile was missed in the midweek defeat at 10-man Sheffield United, so you suspected he would have proved the difference here, during a first half where Villa dominated the ball but could not find the killer pass.
Their overall progress remains considerable. It is still less than nine months since Wolves claimed a 1-0 win at Villa Park which left the hosts 19th in the table. At that point Villa would have been happy just to be in the same division as their rivals this season, let alone five points ahead with two matches in hand. That doesn’t mean recent weeks – and the last one in particular – haven’t been disappointing. After victory at Leeds appeared to mark a return to form, Villa would have hoped to take more than a solitary point from the next two matches.
Their hopes of European qualification remain alive thanks to a fixture list which sees them play both Everton and Tottenham twice during the run-in.
The return of Grealish will also provide a lift. There is a chance the 25-year-old could return for Friday’s trip to Newcastle, a match Villa now probably need to win to ensure they don’t lose too much ground on those above.
In Grealish’s absence the team’s star performers have been at opposite ends of the pitch. Watkins has now gone five matches without a goal but must wonder how, after striking the woodwork for the seventh time this season.
Goalkeeper Martinez, meanwhile, a spectator during the first half, preserved his 14th clean sheet in 26 matches – and eighth straight in Saturday fixtures – with a brilliant stop to deny Coady.