For all of the bright play Wolverhampton have displayed against the best of the Premier League, it has been lacklustre results against their peers that have prevented the promoted side from putting a stranglehold on a top-half spot.
Wolves look to put together a solid 90-minute effort at Molineux on Tuesday against what appears to be a distracted West Ham United side.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Nuno Esprito Santo’s side have claimed nine points (2-3-3) from their eight matches against the Big Six sides, an impressive haul by the new boys. But it has been the slip-ups – most notably home losses to last-place Huddersfield Town and Crystal Palace, and a defeat at relegation-threatened Cardiff City – that have been lost opportunities that could come back to cost Wolverhampton (9-5-9) a potential Europa League spot.
With the Carabao Cup to be contested between Chelsea and Manchester City plus the current 11-point gap separating sixth-place Manchester United and Watford, the Europa League spot that goes to the cup winner will revert to the sixth-place finisher since one or both finalists will be in the Champions League next season.
That route could also exist based on FA Cup results, though Wolverhampton are still in the mix there after scrambling to a 2-2 draw at League One side Shrewsbury Town on Saturday. Matt Doherty’s goal in the third minute of stoppage time rescued the Wolves, who forced a replay at Molineux on Feb. 5.
Raul Jimenez started the fight back in the final quarter-hour after being introduced as a substitute in the 59th minute. Nuno had made five changes from the side that recorded a wild 4-3 win over Leicester City in their last league match, but the absence of defender Willy Boly – who will complete his three-match ban for a direct red card in Wolves’ loss to Manchester City on Jan. 14 – again exposed their frailties at the back.
“This is the cup. You cannot switch off, you always have to be committed to it,” Nuno told the club’s official website. “I think the first half was good, we had chances to do it, but we conceded at the beginning of the second half and then the game went on to become difficult.
“In the end I think the effort of the boys in the last minutes was amazing. It allowed us to go to a second game and stay in the cup. I think it’s part of our character, to always believe, and a good finish can give you something. That was a reflection of the boys’ efforts today.”
Wolverhampton have shown a flair for dramatics late recently with Doherty’s equaliser and Diogo Jota’s stoppage-time winner versus the Foxes. Wolves have scored 13 of their 33 goals in all competitions in the 75th minute or later, and Jimenez continues to gain cult status among supporters as the Mexico international has three goals and an assist in his last six contests.
Roman Saiss is likely to deputise for Boly at left back once more after doing so in the previous two matches.
While Wolverhampton are looking for traction, West Ham United are trying to regroup. The Irons (9-4-10), who are in 10th and one point back of Wolves, crashed out of the FA Cup with a stunning 4-2 loss at Wimbledon, who are last in League One and eight points from safety there.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side were thunderstruck by two goals late in the first half, and seconds after the Chilean used all three of his substitutions at the interval, they conceded a third. West Ham tried to rally as Lucas Perez and Felipe Anderson drew them within 3-2 on 71 minutes, but the underdog side found a fourth on 88 minutes to send the top-flight side packing in the fourth round.
“Was I angry at half-time? Yes of course. I was ashamed of them,” Pellegrini told West Ham’s official website. “The pace of the game, the way we fought for every ball and the way we made movements to receive the ball were disappointing. I changed three players because I could only make three changes. I could have changed all the players.”
It is uncertain if West Ham had been distracted by the saga of striker Marko Arnautovic, who signed a new contract with the club Saturday after expressing a desire to play in China after SIPG Shanghai offered £35 million for the Austria international.
Pellegrini did not name Arnautovic – tied with Anderson for the overall team lead with eight goals – to the 18-man roster Saturday and pointedly refused to talk about him, telling the Independent, “I only talk about the cup. Ask me about the game today and I will answer. Any other question I will not answer.”
Like Wolves to a degree, West Ham have struggled to find consistency throughout the term. They had gone 7-1-2 in 10 matches before losing to Bournemouth in league play prior to Saturday’s flameout.
Wolves are seeking their first double at any level over West Ham after Adama Traore’s goal in the 93rd minute separated the sides in London. The Irons hold a 29-14-19 lead in the 109-year-old series.
Per Bet365, Wolves are even money to claim all three points while West Ham are 11/4 underdogs to snatch a road victory. The odds of the sides splitting are the points are 12/5. Oddsmakers are unsure about the offensive proficiency of the clubs for this match, offering 10/11 odds for both over and under 2.5 goals.
They are almost as torn regarding a potential clean sheet, offering 4/5 odds both teams will score compared to 19/20 for one shutout in either direction.
Jimenez and Leo Bonatini are joint-top options to open the scoring at Molineux at 5/1, followed by Jota 6/1. Oddsmakers are confident Arnautovic will be playing in this match as he takes honours as West Ham’s first choice at 13/2, followed by fellow Irons forwards Andy Carroll and Chicharito Hernandez at 7/1.
Wolves winger Ivan Cavaleiro is also a 7/1 pick, edging out Perez and Helder Costa (15/2). Reverse fixture hero Traore is a 17/2 pick to open the scoring with teammate Morgan Gibbs-White, and West Ham’s Anderson is a 9/1 option.
Jimenez and Bonatini also lead the line for anytime goal-scorers at 8/5, followed by Jota (2/1) and Arnautovic (21/10). Carroll, Hernandez and Cavaleiro are all 9/4 options, with Perez and Costa available at 5/2. Traore and Gibbs-White have 11/4 odds, while Anderson has potential value at 3/1.
This is an interesting match because Wolverhampton have been maddening to watch in contests like this. Nuno’s team has largely lived up to the expectations of being one of the best promoted teams in the Premier League era, but at the same time, even half of the points from those dropped matches listed above would have put Wolves on the cusp of the 40-point mark that would have practically guaranteed safety for next season.
That is going to happen barring a disaster beyond imagination, but given how no one below the Big Six have separated themselves to be seventh — and the possibility of a Europa League qualifying round spot — Wolves may be the team best suited to make something special of the remaining 15 matches.
Then there is West Ham United, who share some of the frailties of inconsistency among the “Other 14” while doing so with a flair of soap opera dramatics. Having Arnautovic back in the fold is all well and good, but the rollout that came with his “new contract” provided internet comedy as he made a video statement that could have doubled as a hostage video.
How Pellegrini walks the line this weekend in terms of the Austria international’s role will be something to watch. It is fairly certain the Chilean did not like having his weak hand exposed by a miserable League One side, and even the anger of using all three of his substitutions at halftime was not enough to rouse the Irons until it was too late.
Even without the injured Andriy Yarmolenko, it can be argued West Ham have the most attacking talent of any non-Big Six side. Additionally, the rumours of them pursuing Watford destroyer Abodulye Doucoure to potentially form a central midfield partnership with Declan Rice shows Pellegrini has an idea of what he wants going forward for season two. If he can ride this crisis out — which means Arnautovic has to quickly get back into form after missing the last two contests — the Irons have a good chance of a top-half finish with an eye on the future.
Wolverhampton should win this game based on form and mood, but they have proven on multiple occasions what they should do rarely happens — even at Molineux. No particular result would be a surprising outcome, though a draw feels like the most likely one based on the lack of a pattern.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 1, West Ham United 1.
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