After a stunning collapse with a spot in the FA Cup final within sight, Wolverhampton look to lick their wounds and end their hoodoo versus bottom-five teams in the table Saturday when they face relegation-threatened Southampton at St Mary’s.
It was all there for Wolves (13-8-11) on Sunday at Wembley Stadium versus Watford in the FA Cup semifinal. The promoted side were two goals to the good with 12 minutes remaining and a spot opposite Manchester City for England’s oldest trophy beckoned with the chance for Europa League play with a victory.
Then, the bottom dropped out from underneath Wolverhampton. The Hornets pulled one back, then a second through a penalty by Troy Deeney. Wolves were then gashed a third time in the extra 30 minutes, once more through Deeney as he set up first goal-scorer Gerard Deulofeu. What was supposed to be a crowning moment became a nightmare to be remembered as a stinging disappointment in a season of overachieving as Wolves lost 3-2.
“Today is tough, sometimes the pain that you feel makes you grow, but we feel it as a group,” coach Nuno Espirito Santo told the club’s official website. “We will stick together because it’s our identity, it’s a squad, we are relentless, we never give up and we will come again.
“Now is the moment we have to face, it’s a moment of sadness. Nothing that we can say or do now is going to change it, we have to stick together, knowing that it’s going to be hard, but let’s look at the future and say our present has a lot of things to go for.”
Under normal circumstances, this match would offer an opportunity as a salve for such a spirit-crushing loss, but for all the good Wolverhampton have done against top-six sides this term, there has been a head-scratching struggle against the bottom six. Wolves have 13 points in 10 matches (3-4-3) against the evergreens compared to 11 in nine matches (3-2-4) against the dregs of the top flight – “lowlighted” by last-place Huddersfield Town doing the double.
“We felt like we could’ve reached the final, but we are not there, so now we’re going to rest and then it’s time to think ahead to the Southampton game,” Diogo Jota said. “We have time to focus on the last games and try to go game-by-game to win. We have got six games left to go and we can still achieve good things in the Premier League.”
Southampton (8-9-15) are running out of time to achieve good things in the Premier League, but a victory in this contest would go a long way toward staying in the top flight. The Saints enter this match five points clear of Cardiff City in 17th place and also have a superior goal difference to the Bluebirds.
The other advantage for Southampton is their run-in features no top-six opponents, having completed that gauntlet with a 3-1 home loss to Liverpool on April 5. The Saints took a deserved lead in the ninth minute through Shane Long, but that proved to be their only shot on target as the table-topping Reds showcased their quality and stole it late with two goals in the final 10 minutes.
“It’s very hard to take,” defender Ryan Bertrand told Southampton’s official website. “I think we worked really well, but you’ve got to do it for 90 minutes. The disappointing thing is that we gave them their goals. They were avoidable, but on the other hand you can’t say we deserved anything after giving them goals.”
For his part, Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl does not feel any more at ease despite what appears to be a favourable run-in that includes a season finale at home versus already-relegated Huddersfield Town.
“For us it’s important that we showed that we can compete with these teams and we show that we are fighting for everything,” the gaffer told the Daily Echo. “Now we have no top six teams in the last six rounds but it doesn’t mean it is easier now.
“Every Premier League game is hard to win and very hard to take points. I think it is still a difficult and hard run for us but we are looking forward.
First-choice striker Danny Ings is again available after being ineligible to play against his parent club. Southampton will make Ings’ move permanent this summer for £20 million, but the short-term goal is to get the forward firing again. Ings leads Southampton with eight goals in all competitions but has gone six matches without one.
Wolverhampton ran out 2-0 winners in the reverse fixture in September, with substitute Ivan Cavaleiro snapping a scoreless deadlock 11 minutes from time. Jonny added a late second for Wolves, whose lone double thus far has come against West Ham United.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 1, Wolverhampton 1.
(Ruben Vinagre photo courtesy Wolverhampton official Twitter account)