Matt Doherty nets as Wolves stroll past Espanyol into last 16

Nuno Espirito Santo’s side had the tie as good as won before travelling to Spain

Matt Doherty of Wolverhampton Wanderers scores his team’s second goal during the Uefa Europa League round of 32 second leg match against Espanyol. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Matt Doherty of Wolverhampton Wanderers scores his team’s second goal during the Uefa Europa League round of 32 second leg match against Espanyol. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

 

Espanyol 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 2 (aggregate: 2-6)

Espanyol landed the first punch and the last too but Wolves knocked them

out, as everyone knew they would. Ultimately, the decisive blows had been delivered at Molineux seven days ago, the Premier League side taking an unassailable four-goal lead; all that was left was to finish the Spaniards off and Nuno Espíritu Santo’s side did so swiftly. In a game that did not change the final outcome and was never likely to, Wolves lost 3-2 but progressed 6-3 on aggregate. Matt Doherty got the second of two equalisers late on, only for Jonathan Calleri to head in a late winner.

And yet it was Wolves’s first goal from Adama Traoré that in effect ended the tie, if not the match, after 22 minutes.

Calleri had opened the scoring and he later gave Espanyol the lead for the second time when Max Kilman kicked David López in the face to give away a penalty early in the second half. Then, right at the end, a quick free-kick saw Pipa stand up a lovely cross from which he headed in the winner and completed a hat-trick. He had scored more in one night here than in every other game this season put together. He left with the match ball, but there was no real celebration: this was already long over as a genuine contest.

It was a game, though. Far better than it might have been: there was excitement, even some edge at times, and five goals. There was even a comedy of errors, Adrià Pedrosa letting Pedro Neto run clean through two minutes from time. Neto went around the goalkeeper and then somehow put the ball wide, hiding his face in his shirt, the stadium laughing loudly. That would have been a winner for Wolves; instead, Espanyol got it. Not that it ruined a day out for Wolves’ fans, another leg of a journey that continues around the continent and may yet take them to Gdansk.

“If Buster Douglas can beat Mike Tyson, why not us?” Abelardo Fernández had said. It is thirty years since that night in Tokyo when a 42-1 outsider hit Tyson’s jaw in the eighth to complete the greatest upset in boxing history and provide athletes everywhere with a reason to believe in miracles. Wolves were 90% through, the Espanyol manager conceded. But, he asked, “why can’t we be Douglas?” He knew even that 10 per cent was generous, although a strong Espanyol starting XI suggested they would take this seriously, even in the absence of Raúl de Tomás, and so it proved.

Nuno made more significant changes. There was no starting place for Diego Jota, Rúben Neves or Raúl Jiménez, but Adama Traoré was included in the stadium barely three kilometres from where he grew up and against the club where his brother was in the academy. And, boy, has he grown up: at times, he ran straight through opponents. Alongside him there was a first start for Daniel Podence and Nuno had said Wolves would play, not just pass the time. Podence provided the passes for both goals, a promising beginning.

Few Espanyol supporters believed and nor were they as concerned about this as they are about their fate at the foot of the Spanish table. Survival, not progress, is the hope to which they cling, a titanic and more significant task. A 6.55 kick-off also caught many still at work, so there were as many seats empty as occupied. Wolves’s supporters were in good voice, 3,000 of them enjoying the sunshine, accompanying their team. Often overlooked, this is what European campaigns are about for many fans. Sadly, a small group were dragged out by security staff early in the second half when they appeared to be trying to get into a VIP box.

Despite everything, Espanyol started well, carrying the early weight of a game that they led twice. There was dignity in the victory and warm applause at the end, giving them hope for their domestic battle against the drop. For Wolves, it is hard to know if the way they lost means anything or if it will concern them at all given the context in which it all happened.

The first chance was Espanyol’s, Calleri clean through and pausing before continuing his run, then drawing a sharp save from Rui Patrício only for the linesman to flag for an offside that they were all aware of anyway. Just say so and you can save us all the bother, Calleri seemed to suggest as he looked towards the touchline. Which, in truth, could have been applied to this whole occasion.

And yet momentarily there was the slightest hint of life in the tie, Óscar Melendo and Pedrosa combining on the left to create the opener. Calleri was there to finish from close range, a cheer going around as he grabbed the ball from the net and raced back to the centre circle. There was even a chant of “Yes, we can!” A neat backheel from Vargas a moment later and maybe some genuinely wondered if they could. There was plenty of time after all.

They couldn’t. And it didn’t take long for Wolves to end this, neat footwork from Podence providing Traoré with the chance. The first shot was blocked by Fernando Calero but he pushed his way past and finished. 1-1, 5-1 on aggregate, an away goal scored. Espanyol needed five now. They got two, Calleri completing a hat-trick while Wolves got another one of their own, Doherty finishing from close range with 12 minutes left, only to concede again. They were beaten, but they were singing away in the stands. They had known they were through since the 22nd minute. They had known seven days ago, in fact. – Guardian

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