It’s a rare thing to say about a promoted side at the turn of the calendar year, but barring an unforeseen and complete collapse, Wolverhampton are most certainly staying up come May.
Whether the Wolves harbour European aspirations will begin to unfold over their last 19 matches, starting with Wednesday’s tilt versus Crystal Palace at Molineux.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Nuno Espirito Santo’s side have been a thorn in the side of the Big Six clubs this term, taking nine points (2-3-2) from seven matches played. None, though, may prove to be bigger than the three they took off Tottenham Hotspur in Saturday’s 3-1 stunner at Wembley. Wolves scored three times in the final 18 minutes as Nuno’s nous and Wolves’ depth proved decisive.
Joao Moutinho, who came off the bench on 68 minutes, set up Willy Boly’s header for the equaliser four minutes later and then originated the play that led to Raul Jimenez’s go-ahead finish on 83 minutes. Another sub, Helder Costa, added a third with a shot that took a deflection off a Spurs defender that slipped between Hugo Lloris and the left post with five minutes left.
The result was Wolves’ fourth win in their last six matches (4-1-1) and a lofty status of seventh in the table on 29 points. Given how the Big Six sides also usually monopolize the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, Wolverhampton (8-5-7) could find themselves in Europa League qualifying if results break out accordingly, but that is still a long ways away.
“The key is all the group, all the players who were playing today and those who didn’t play, the sacrifice – we do it all the week, all these months – we work a lot and that’s the result of our training, our sessions,” the gaffer told Wolves’ official website.
“But that’s it. That’s our football. We can play it against big teams and small teams, we need to do the same and have the same spirit, and against Tottenham, our spirit came out and we won.”
It also helps to have an in-form striker in Jimenez, as the Mexico international scored his third goal in that six-game surge. Right back Matt Doherty is also proving to be a menace with a goal and two assists in that run after setting up Costa’s marker.
Moutinho likely will be restored to the first XI after Nuno gave Leander Dendoncker his first league start. It would also not be surprising to see teenage starlet Morgan Gibbs-White back in the pivot in a slight tactical tweak from a 3-4-3 to a 3-4-1-2 set-up that has Jimenez and either Ivan Cavaleiro or Adama Traore up front. Traore has blistering pace but a lack of finishing has prevented him from locking down a spot in the starting XI.
Crystal Palace (5-4-11) are trying to separate themselves from the relegation scrap and enter this match 14th on 19 points. The problem is the Eagles are one of the bottom seven sides separated by nine points, and that number is further compressed to five from 14th to 19th.
Palace were unable to nick a point off Chelsea at home, falling 1-0 on Sunday. For the most part, Roy Hodgson’s team did well to shut down superstar Eden Hazard, but a lapse early in the second half proved costly as N’Golo Kante was able to time his run to get behind the back four to control David Luiz’s lofted pass and beat Vicente Guaita on 51 minutes.
The Eagles tried to mix things up in the final 20-plus minutes by pumping balls into the box for Connor Wickham, but the forward spurned his best chance in the closing minutes by going over the bar after controlling a cross on a free kick.
“You win a couple and then you go and draw or lose a few so it’s about that consistency, I think a few more points on the board is what we need,” defender James Tomkins told Palace’s official website. “Let’s not shy away from it, we’re down there and it’s going to be a fight.
“I think it’s massively important if you’re going to survive in this league, we don’t concede many goals or lose by many goals but we need to find that balance and consistency of doing that and then scoring at the other end. We need to start against Wolves and hopefully we’ll get a good performance there.”
Palace failed to register a shot on frame versus Chelsea and have gone 235 minutes without a goal in the run of play since Andros Townsend’s wonder strike in their upset win at reigning champions Manchester City. The good news is that Palace are on the road, where they have netted 12 of their 17 league goals and 10 of their 19 points (3-1-6).
Doherty’s first top-flight goal on 56 minutes separated the sides in the reverse fixture at Selhurst Park on Oct. 6. This will be Palace’s first top-flight match at Molineux since a 2-0 loss in the First Division in 1980. Wolverhampton’s last double over Palace came in the Championship in 2008-09.
Per Bet365, Wolves’ win over Tottenham Hotspur most certainly resonated with oddsmakers, who have made the hosts even money to pick up a second straight win. Crystal Palace are 11/4 underdogs to take all three points while a draw has 12/5 odds.
There is also expectations of a low-scoring match at Molineux, with 4/6 odds on a game with less than 2.5 goals compared to 6/5 odds to clear that threshold. There are also 3/4 odds on one team getting blanked compared to even money for both teams scoring.
Jimenez leads a list of five Wolverhampton players to potentially score the first goal of the match at 9/2, followed by Leo Bonatini (5/1). Cavaleiro and Helder Costa are joint-third options at 7/1, while Traore and Palace striker Zaha round out the top five at 15/2.
Jimenez is also an 8/5 selection to score for the fourth time in seven matches for Wolves, with Bonatini a 7/4 selection. Cavaleiro and Costa are 13/5 options, followed again by Traore and Zaha at 11/4.
It sounds counterintuitive on the back of their biggest win of the season, but Wolverhampton need to at least not lose this game. Nuno’s side are unquestionably one of the bright stories of the Premier League, and when Wolves are on their game, they are a top-half and potentially even a top-eight side.
Following up big wins with another victory are part and parcel of a side’s evolution, and Wolves have already shown themselves capable of such results — they followed up a victory over Chelsea by winning at Newcastle United to trigger this six-game surge.
While there is a possibility Nuno could rest Ruben Neves again for Roman Saiss like he did previously in the Fulham match, the belief is Neves gets the call and then Nuno plots his FA Cup course. The expectation is Gibbs-White returns to the first XI, and Costa gets the call for Traore, who is nursing a knock and could be better utilised as a pacy option in the final 20-30 minutes against an obstinate Palace back four.
Tomkins comments about the relegation scrap were telling, that Palace are under no illusions a hard grind is ahead for the next five months. Roy Hodgson’s appears to have just enough talent to tread water, but they also need something exceptional to have breakthrough moments. They have been too infrequent in terms of production from Wilfried Zaha, but he also has lacked a consistent partner whether it be Townsend, Jordan Ayew, the injured Christian Benteke or now potentially Wickham.
Palace, though, have had some of their best offensive performances on the road this term, scoring 12 of their 17 league goals outside Selhurst Park. Wolves have recorded just one clean sheet in their last 12 league matches since blanking Palace at Selhurst Park in October, so there is definitely an opportunity for the Eagles, but the hosts appear to be in too good a run right now to be stopped.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 2, Crystal Palace 1.