Wolves determined to finish Europa League marathon in grand fashion
Wolves’ first European quarter-final since 1972 – what a joy it is to be in the last eight of the Europa League.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s stars touched down in Germany on Sunday in preparation for tonight’s colossal clash with five-time competition winners Sevilla.
And fans, although they cannot be at the MSV Arena in Duisburg to cheer them on, are ever so proud of the side for getting this far. Rightly so.
Nuno & Co, though, are not just happy to be involved in the mini-tournament which is seeing out the competition.
Having come this far – through three rounds of qualifiers, then the group stages and on to the knockouts – they are fixed on seeing the job through.
They started against Northern Irish outfit Crusaders on July 25, 2019, at Molineux and want to be hoisting the trophy aloft in Cologne a week on Friday.
That is not to say they are taking Sevilla lightly. Far from it.
Nuno, as ever, is taking things one game at a time, but even he has alluded to going all the way in recent weeks.
Sure, the Spanish side have won the Europa more than anybody else and finished fourth in La Liga this season – level on points with third-placed Atletico Madrid – which is no small feat.
But Wolves, on their day, can beat anybody.
They believe they can topple Sevilla in what is one of the club’s biggest matches in decades, as they should.
Nuno and his players were in a jubilant mood after getting past Olympiacos – who, it must be said, put up a hell of a fight – last Thursday.
However, one area will be under the spotlight tonight.
A cruel injury to Jonny Castro Otto – the first truly severe one of the last few years – has given Ruben Vinagre an almighty opportunity to impress.
This will be just his second start since football resumed after the lockdown. What a time it is to be stepping into the breach.
Vinagre has come in before and held his own. The young Portuguese has plenty of potential and, going forward, is as threatening a wing-back as you will find.
Defensively, though, question marks still very much surround him.
Is he a weakness Sevilla, who are particularly potent down the right flank, will be able to expose?
Or will this be his coming of age, where he steps up and proves he can plug the gap during what will be a lengthy spell on the sidelines for Otto?
Let’s hope for the latter but, still, the Spaniard injuring his anterior cruciate ligament is a huge blow.
Otto has been ever so consistent since arriving from Atletico Madrid, a 7/10 most weeks and exactly the type of player you would want for an encounter as enormous as this.
Vinagre, meanwhile, is something of a wildcard.
He has bucketloads of potential, but there have also been times where has been caught cold on the back foot – momentary lapses in concentration being punished, as they will be here if he falls into that trap again.
You sense his performance will have a huge bearing on how the game pans out.
And what about Julen Lopetegui? The man who was supposed to be unveiled as boss when Fosun bought Wolves in 2016 is the one steering the Sevilla ship.
He took the Spain job instead of the Molineux gig, of course, but things did not exactly go to plan with the national team, nor did they at his next job, with Real Madrid.
Lopetegui has rebuilt his reputation with Sevilla, though, and – you would like to think, anyway – will be well-versed in the Wolves way.
In matches likes this, too, experience counts for a lot.
Sevilla have a fair amount of it, with midfielder Ever Banega part of their Europa-winning sides of 2015 and 2016.
Nuno has players with major accolades behind them too, though.
Rui Patricio – who was absolutely brilliant against the Greek champions last week, making two world-class saves – and Joao Moutinho were part of Portugal’s triumphant Euro 2016 squad, and they could play a vital part in dealing with such a grand occasion.
Looking at Wolves’ opponents, they do not seem to have any glaring weaknesses.
After all, they are a team full of quality – Jesus Navas flying down the right flank, veteran Banega as silky as they come and Lucas Ocampos a match-winner in the final third.
But for Navas, Wolves have consistent goalscorer and assist supplier Matt Doherty, midfield maestro Ruben Neves and one of the best strikers around in Raul Jimenez.
Whichever way you want to look at it, this has all the makings of an epic last-eight affair.
It is a team who have burst on to the European scene and taken it by storm against the competition’s gatekeepers.
If Wolves are victorious against Sevilla, why on earth would you bet against them being the last ones standing?
The fact it is taking place without supporters, you could say, is of detriment to Nuno’s charges.
They have excelled in noisy atmospheres – the crowd either behind them or against them.
It is also worth pointing out Sevilla have already played at tonight’s venue, beating Roma 2-0 there last week, so you could give them the edge there, too.
But Wolves, having stayed the course for so long – again, with such a small squad – are pretty much in with as good a chance as anybody of getting their hands on the silverware.
It is straight knockout, of course, instead of two legs for this quarter-final encounter.
And if they are on the mettle, they can certainly beat Sevilla.
Wolves, obviously, could also bow out tonight, and that would be no disgrace.
Despite the initial disappointment on missing out on sixth place to Tottenham in the Premier League and not sealing a Europa spot for next season because of Arsenal’s FA Cup success, 2019/20 has been remarkable – whatever happens.
You cannot help but feel, though, whether it is at the forefront of your mind or deep down, that going the distance is Wolves’ fate.
So, get yourself ready for what promises to be a dramatic 90 minutes, one way or another.
Nuno, no doubt, will have prepared for this in extraordinary detail, leaving no stone unturned.
Perhaps Diogo Jota – a man who has not been at it as of late – could suddenly turn on the style in a competition he has loved playing in.
Everyone, in fact, has enjoyed this European adventure. Fingers crossed, it continues beyond tonight.
Predicted Wolves XI
(3-5-2): Patricio; Boly, Coady, Saiss; Doherty, Neves, Dendoncker, Moutinho, Vinagre; Jimenez, Jota