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The last-minute winner. Those rare commodities that turn up less often than Christmas miracles. They are to be savoured, repeated, and consumed from every possible angle. For this to arrive on Wolves Manager Julen Lopetegui’s Premier League debut, and in such an important game against fellow relegation candidates, elevates this one into Wolves folklore. Make no mistake about it, had Wolves lost this game, they would have ended the day seven points below the team who started the day in 17th. It felt like it was a game that Wolves could not lose. It ended with the gap closing to just one point and Wolves climbing to 18th. More importantly, Wolves were very much back in the pack of lower mid-table clubs, rather than being adrift.

Lopetegui’s first Premier League eleven saw one change to the team that limped over the line against Gillingham in the Carabao Cup in midweek, with Hwang Hee-Chan replacing Guedes. The former looked to have played himself into contention following lively appearances in the World Cup, along with a contribution against Gillingham. Hwang’s inclusion in truth though probably says a little more about Guedes’ lack of impact than it does for Hwang’s improvement in form. This meant that Joe Hodge kept his place in midfield. The omission of Adama, Nunes, and Jimenez was surprising to many before kick-off, but it left the bench looking particularly strong. It would prove to be telling. Formation-wise, the 4-3-3/4-5-1 looked to be retained in and out of possession.

As you may expect, when 20th plays 17th, confidence and quality are scarce throughout the match. The opening exchanges were nervy, but there was definitely something new here. Wolves were clearly pressing higher and with more purpose. They had unsettled Everton in the first 5 minutes, but were undone by a set piece in the seventh minute. Wolves need to learn the lesson here and fast. Had we gone on to lose this game to this set piece, then those questions would be a lot louder than they will be today. Mina heads home for Everton directly from the corner, having overpowered his marker, Hugo Bueno. Had Mina not managed to use his 1-foot height advantage over Bueno, then behind them was his giant defensive partner Tarkowski, being marshalled by 5’7″ Moutinho. Height was always going to be a problem today, especially in midfield, but something went badly wrong here. Was this not planned? Surely, any team meeting about player marking might raise this as a point of potential caution! Mina’s dance routine in celebration compounded a frustrating start.

Wolves rallied, however, and during their best spell of the first half, managed to score from a set piece of their own. While it came from a set piece, that probably doesn’t do this goal justice. A short corner was taken and crossed to a waiting Moutinho on the edge of the box. While shaping for a shot, the ball would not sit properly for Moutinho, who instead chooses to loop a fantastic pass deep across the penalty area to Daniel Podence. The diminutive forward has ghosted unnoticed behind the Everton backline to calmly roll the ball beyond Pickford on the half-volley. Wolves back in it.

Christmas is for giving, and having drawn level, Wolves donned their best Santa outfits and set about trying to hand the game to Everton. Hodge first set Maupay clear with an errored back pass, Maupay should have done way better but was closed by a combination of a Semedo and Sa sandwich. Sa’s smart intervention was immediately followed by a panicked slice, but he was fortunate for the ball to land safely when stranded near the half way line. A few moments later, Collins gave the ball away without pressure allowing Everton to break high in the Wolves half. Wolves were again indebted to Sa for producing an exceptional save low to his left. Wolves mistakes were looking much more likely to cause an issue than anything Everton could muster up themselves as an attacking force

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After the break, the game continued in a similar theme of two poor sides, who whilst industrious, struggled to produce any moments of quality. Both managers turned to their benches for fresh ideas and it is here that Wolves had the advantage. Wolves subs were of a good standard, arguably better than those that had started. Adama, Nunes and Ait-Nouri were introduced all of whom improved the threat that Wolves posed particularly on the counter attack. As the game entered its final phases, Lopetegui changed formation, bringing Toti Gomes into a three man central defence. It appeared that Lopetegui was satisfied with a point and the change intended to see out the game. Wolves will claim that they were in control without the ball for long periods of the second half, and save for a few clumsy challenges around the edge of their own box, they would be right. Everton rarely threatened. The change to a back three had worked well for Wolves defensively, as toothless Everton attacks were repelled reasonably comfortably. The change had however had a couple of other impacts which would ultimately decide the game. Moving to three at the back released the full backs to play a little higher, whilst also creating space behind an advancing Everton. As the clock passed the end of normal time and into the fifth minute of injury time, Everton had comfortable possession. This game was seconds from being done. Were it not for the impatience of a disgruntled Goodison fanbase demanding a final attack, Everton draw this game and keep Wolves at arm’s length, preserving their four point advantage. Jeers from the crowd rang out as Everton kept possession, ultimately forcing a long ball and a transition of play. A Good challenge from Kilmann released Nunes who was able to turn and find a ball to an advancing Traore. Suddenly Wolves had numbers. Traore advanced into the box and crossed beyond Diego Costa and into the path of Ryan Ait-Nouri. Time slowed, Ait-Nouri’s movements felt like something from the Matrix, before hitting his shot beyond the diving Pickford. This was a special moment, the fans knew it, the players knew it. Scenes!

Wolves survived the final minute with ease to ensure a third win of the season, certainly the most important. A win that takes them off the bottom and closer to other teams in the bottom half of the league. Wolves needed a lift, a moment to build from and this could be the point in time that come the end of the season, many will cite as being key. This wasn’t the best of performances. In a season where Wolves found themselves at the bottom of the league, they have probably played better and lost, but it was the best result. Wolves gifted Everton opportunities that were not taken and to an extent, Wolves relied on their own luck to get them out of situations that they brought on themselves. What was evident here though was Julen Lopetegui had options from the bench, and was prepared to make significant player and tactical changes mid match. This win was in part owing to those changes. You could argue that it was fortunate to pick up all three points, but sometimes it is equally beneficial to be lucky as it is to be good. Wolves won’t care, survival looks significantly more achievable on Boxing day than it did on Christmas Day. 

Dave Porter, Always Wolves Fan TV


Wolverhampton born, East Sussex based supporter. Old enough to have seen the descent to the bottom, young enough to not have experienced the days my friend. Not many Wolves fans to celebrate or commiserate with round these parts, so had to find an outlet to discuss the enormous highs, crushing lows and share the frustrations that only come with following Wolves.  

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