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Analysis: Europe possible as Wolves winning feeling becomes the norm

The sign of a good team is one that can win without playing at its best.

Without doubt, Wolves have played better and lost this season, yet they still found a way to take all three points.

They certainly were not poor by any standards, but they struggled to get into their rhythm in the early stages of the game and they also allowed Southampton to snatch some good opportunities.

Jose Sa was, once again, a breath of fresh air in goal and he made a handful of outstanding saves.

Goals for Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore will do wonders for confidence and are priceless, while Conor Coady stepped up with a tidy finish.

Although James Ward-Prowse’s world-class free-kick put Wolves on the back foot and almost cost them, Wolves stood firm and once again saw the game out.

These days Wolves are a well-oiled machine – largely down to the work of head coach Bruno Lage – and victories are becoming the norm.

But to take three points in a game where they did not quite reach their heights is the most pleasing thing to take away.

If this side are to push on for a European spot – which is certainly possible – then results like this will be key.

Lage made five changes to the side that enjoyed an FA Cup triumph last week but stuck with the 3-4-3 formation.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 15: Adama Traore of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates after scoring their team's third goal during the Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton at Molineux on January 15, 2022 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Jack Thomas - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images).

Remarkably, young defender Toti Gomes was handed his Wolves debut and started on the left of the back three. The 22-year-old has spent the last 18 months on loan at Grasshoppers and only arrived in Wolverhampton to train with the team for the first time this month.

He came in to replace Fernando Marcal, who came off with a knock at half-time against Sheffield United, while Romain Saiss is away with Morocco at the African Cup of Nations.

Wolves were also dealt a blow as Ruben Neves and Ki-Jana Hoever missed out with Covid-19.

Ralph Hasenhuttl named an unchanged line-up following their 4-1 midweek win over Brentford and started in a 3-5-2 formation.

They did, however, have two players return to the squad and make the bench in Kyle Walker-Peters and Yan Valery.

Despite his intense and unexpected introduction into Premier League football, Gomes showed no signs of nerves in the opening minutes. Molineux showed its appreciation as he made his first touches, and he then made a good block to deny a Nathan Tella cross.

A scramble in the box almost handed Armando Broja a chance but goalkeeper Sa did well to snatch the ball on the second attempt.

It was a quiet opening 15 minutes as neither side created many chances. Southampton had plenty of set pieces and most of the ball, while Wolves struggled to get into their rhythm.

Wolves’ first foray forward almost resulted in a goal, however, when Rayan Ait-Nouri was released down the left flank and his low cross was cleared just in front of goal by Lyanco. At the other end, Sa was called into action to deny Romain Perraud.

Referee Michael Salisbury was the biggest talking point after 20 minutes with some bizarre decisions and general inconsistency that resulted in some feedback from the home crowd.

Wolves were beginning to grow into the game and a sublime cross-field pass from Leander Dendoncker was beautifully trapped by Daniel Podence. He raced forward and cut inside but his shot was saved by Fraser Forster.

VAR and the officials once again had their time to shine when Ait-Nouri was taken out by Jan Bednarek in the Southampton box. Salisbury originally gave a corner, but after a long VAR check and once the referee had come over to check the pitch side monitor, a penalty was given.

Jimenez stepped up to calmly slot home the spot kick and hand Wolves the lead.

But just moments later Southampton should have equalised. Mohammed Salisu was found in the box from just five yards but his header was saved wonderfully by Sa.

On the stroke of half-time Salisu then met a corner but once again Sa saved by tipping it over the bar.

Although the visitors had the better chances and should have scored, Wolves entered the break leading 1-0 with Jimenez’s composed penalty the difference.

As the teams emerged for the second half, Southampton made an attacking switch by bringing on Che Adams for Ibrahima Diallo. That meant they matched Wolves’ 3-4-3 formation.

In a slow start to the second half, the first talking point came when Oriol Romeu went down in the box after being caught by Dendoncker. Half-hearted Southampton appeals were waved away, but this writer has seen those given as penalties in the past so Wolves, perhaps, got away with it.

Conor Coady of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates with teammates after scoring (Photo by Sam Bagnall - WWFC/Wolves via Getty Images).

Wolves then had the ball in the net through Coady but it was quickly and correctly disallowed after Gomes, who played Coady in, had strayed offside from the free-kick.

But moments later Wolves did find their second. A long free-kick came in and with Forster out of his goal Max Kilman met it and hit the post – but Coady followed it up and finished from close range for his second of the season.

Following the goal, the Saints settled and began to see more of the ball as he looked to force a way back into the game. A handful of half-chances fell by the wayside, including an opportunity for Adams, who shot straight at Sa from a tight angle.

With only six minutes of normal time remaining, Ward-Prowse smashed home a sensational free-kick from 30 yards to hand the visitors a lifeline.

Challenges were starting to fly in as referee Salisbury lost control of the game, but Wolves were desperately wrestling for control of it so they could hang on to their lead.

Perraud almost levelled when his free header at the back post smashed the crossbar, before Traore went up the other end and missed a glorious chance following up from Fabio Silva’s saved effort.

But moments later Traore was released down the left flank and, after skipping beyond Salisu, he slotted the ball into the bottom corner to hand Wolves some respite in the six minutes of added time.

Academy graduate Luke Cundle came on in the closing stages for his Premier League debut as Wolves saw out the 3-1 victory.

Lage’s side still sit eighth in the league and they are now only one point off Manchester United in seventh.

They are still within touching distance of the top four, with some games in hand, and they are beginning to find their scoring touch. Life at Molineux could not get much better right now.

Aspirations ahead of the season will surely have changed as this squad have forced their way into the European conversation.

Reaching the top four is still likely to be a fantasy, with many of the traditional top six clubs expected to push on. Wolves’ small squad will also be to their detriment.

But a return to European football – either in the Europa League or the Europa Conference League – is certainly possible.

It is to the great credit of Lage, his staff and this group of players for adapting to the new style and new ideas.

Wolves have overcome injury issues, Covid-19 cases and are currently flying high.

There will be a time when reality hits and they will go through a patch of bad form, but it is how they deal with that and bounce back that will define their season.

This squad has shown an abundance of character this season and that, matched with their strong defensive base, will serve them well.

They have also scored three goals in each of their last two games in all competitions. Goals have been hard to come by this season but if that also starts to click, then Wolves are capable of anything.

Jimenez and Traore both scoring is huge, too, and they could be key to the club’s fortunes.

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