It’s slightly ridiculous that UEFA’s rules allow a player who started the season playing in Europe for one club, to then eliminate them while playing for another. But they do and he did: Daniel Podence earned the penalty that saw Wolves through to the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of Olympiacos.
Podence is one of those players that every team should have. Diminutive, skilful, and with a low centre of gravity. He’s less a footballer, more a collection of compelling attributes which can just be dropped into an area of the pitch and then used to prod at a defensive weakness and capitalise on mistakes.
In this instance, it was a lack of concentration from the Olympiacos defence and an horrendous first touch from the visiting goalkeeper. Then, it was the slyness to position himself between Bobby Allain and the ball, and wait for the inevitable contact. It duly arrived, the referee had no choice but to point to the spot, and Raul Jimenez dispatched the penalty with lazy and impudent ease.
37 – No player has been directly involved in more goals across all competitions for Premier League clubs in 2019-20 than @Wolves‘ Raúl Jiménez (37 – 27 goals, 10 assists; level with Kevin De Bruyne). Stellar. #UEL #WOLOLY pic.twitter.com/cMgYWiXIxp
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 6, 2020
Still, Podence: nicely done. If Wolves were to lose any of their attacking parts over the summer, he could become extremely important to them in a hurry. Even if they don’t, you wonder whether Nuno Espirito Santo might find a way of accommodating him, Diogo Jota, Jimenez and Adama Traore all in the same side. It’s unlikely, it would probably be too aggressive for a coach who prefers to counter-punch, but those are four excellent attacking players, each of them different. It shows the range that Wolves are quietly assembling.
This was a successful night, but one which wasn’t without its concerning moments. Wolves were fortunate not to concede a first-half equaliser when Youssef El-Arrabi found himself on the wrong side of one of those offside decisions. Minutes later, Pape Cisse flailed a long limb at a free-kick, only just failing to make what would have been decisive contact at the back-post.
“There’s jeapordy in this”, observed Peter Drury on commentary. He was right. Wolves got to half-time with their lead intact, but only after goalkeeper Rui Patricio had made at least one really excellent save and Olympiacos had spent the first 45 minutes controlling the ball.
When the second half began, it wasn’t much better. Only a subtle nudge in the back from Willy Boly prevented El-Arrabi from scoring for real and, for the much of the first 15 minutes, the attacking overloads kept coming down the right-hand side, with the Saiss-Vinagre axis looking increasingly uncomfortable.
Given how long Wolves’ season has been, though, it seems churlish to focus on the negatives. What’s reassuring about them, is that even under these circumstances – when they didn’t play well, when they didn’t create any real momentum – they were still able to generate moments of alluring class.
In the first-half, Ruben Neves played one of the finest raking passes that Molineux has ever seen to pick out Traore on the touchline. In the second, Neves showed his range again, cutting the Greeks open with a slide-rule ball to die for, from which – eventually – Boly should really have finished the tie.
In between those moments, despite Olympiacos enjoying the weight of possession and the bulk of the chances, Wolves still offered the occasional glimmer. Jimenez attempted a ludicrous, Lamela-like rabona chip before the break. Podence and Jota combined beautifully in the box to create a half-chance after it.
Ultimately, there was always the sense that if they were to find themselves in real trouble, Wolves would have the power and quality to get themselves out of it. That might be an illusory positive, but it seems like a good thing at the moment – on the evidence of the games played on Wednesday and Thursday, the Europa League remains full of imprecise teams, all struggling for proper attacking rhythm. By contrast, Wolves’ guns look likely to fire.
Not that the final half-hour was comfortable. Guilherme sent a dipping shot onto the roof of Patricio’s net with ten minutes left. A few minutes later, the Portuguese had to parry away a header by substitute Ahmed Hassan. It wasn’t an all-out assault, but it was still a bit of a shelling and it was telling that Nuno ran straight to his goalkeeper at full-time, embracing him like a first-born son.
Yes, given the calibre of player left in this competition, things will need to tighten up at the back.
But Wolves will be in that last-eight too and that’s what matters. Given that their 2019-20 season also started longer ago than anyone can remember, that’s quite an achievement and testament to the spirit within and management of a side who retain just enough life to be very dangerous.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter