Five points separate nine teams battling relegation and 23 fixtures remain which pit them against each other. Wolves v Leeds was a fine start to absurd fun.
If this was an indication as to what can be expected from those remaining games between the nine sides separated by five points in the ongoing Premier League relegation free-for-all, the otherwise engrossing title race and gripping sprint for European qualification will be lapped 10 times over for excitement and absurdity.
There are still 23 games left in this ludicrous season between the teams in 12th, 20th and anywhere in the middle. While wheat and chaff ought to have been distinguished by then, the final day sees Everton host Bournemouth, Leicester visit West Ham and Crystal Palace face Nottingham Forest. If Match of the Day actually deign to show all the requisite goals, that promises to be a seminal episode.
Wolves and Leeds both sated and extended the appetite for that near quarter-century of six-pointers. While most such fixtures are cagey, nervous, tense and trepidatious affairs, with neither side willing to blink first for fear of incurring a doubly damaging defeat, Molineux was treated to a reckless abandonment of those concerns.
In 112 minutes there were 34 shots, six goals, two red cards and enough evidence to suggest either, both or neither of these teams will stay up, depending on individual interpretation.
They were sublime and ridiculous in equal measure, capable of prompting questions as to quite how they find themselves in this predicament one second, before providing a negligent or haphazard answer the next. Leeds scored three times in the first hour as they managed the game perfectly, only for a wondrous Jonny goal to scupper those plans entirely. Matheus Cunha made it 3-2 eight minutes later to set up a grandstand finish the hosts never seemed fully equipped to fulfil.
The justified sending-off of Jonny for an awful tackle on Luke Ayling – a clash between two of the season’s least likely goalscorers – certainly impacted their hopes. As did the removal of Ruben Neves for Joao Moutinho soon after the second Wolves goal. Julen Lopetegui’s side relinquished control when they most needed it.
Javi Gracia was equally the architect of this victory. The defensive shape and discipline of Leeds was exemplary even when emotions ran high. Taking the excellent Wilfried Gnonto off on the hour was roundly chastised but replacement Rasmus Kristensen scored the third goal within seconds of his introduction, while Crysencio Summerville and Rodrigo combined to seal the deal in stoppage-time.
That prompted fury from Wolves, although their decision to collectively stop playing because of a foul on Adama Traore that was never given felt like more of an issue than referee Michael Salisbury’s officiating. It sparked quite the reaction, culminating in Matheus Nunes aggressively defying the concept of an early bath as an unused substitute sent off in the 110th minute for something even his own team could only describe as ‘an incident that occurred off the pitch’.
Matheus Nunes receives a straight red card for an incident that occurred off the pitch. #WOLLEE
— Wolves (@Wolves) March 18, 2023
The omens are good for Leeds. On March 18 of 2022, Jack Harrison, Ayling and Rodrigo all scored in a 3-2 win over Wolves at Molineux, with the hosts having a player sent off. That result lifted them to 16th and seven points clear of the relegation zone; the same scorers in similar circumstances exactly a year to the day have delivered a win which takes them to 14th, yet the cushion is only two points.
Aston Villa pulling clear of the rabble by hammering Bournemouth, leapfrogging Chelsea and leaving the relegation rabble a whole 10 points adrift of the rest has only solidified the legitimacy of this preposterous mini league, in which momentum and impetus is certain to change hands each week.
A table of results in games between Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, Everton, West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton has Forest top on 18 points and West Ham, Bournemouth and Southampton level at the bottom on 14. There is so little between them and the stakes are so high. It makes for a thrilling scramble and, hopefully, much more of this absurdity.