Wolves’ Europa League odyssey will continue into next week’s quarter-finals thanks to a gruelling victory over the champions of Greece. Raúl Jiménez converted a penalty to give Nuno Espírito Santo’s side an early lead but Olympiakos made them suffer before the final whistle triggered joy and relief at Molineux. Wolves will face Sevilla in the last eight in Germany on Tuesday.
At full-time Nuno gathered his players in a huddle in the centre-circle. “I told the boys: ‘OK, holidays must wait,’” revealed the manager.
At its simplest, the story of this nerve-splaying duel boiled down to a contrast between two goalkeepers: Rui Patricio performed heroics for Wolves to preserve the lead given to them by Jiménez after a blunder by Bobby Allain, who was making his European debut for Olympiakos because of injury to their first-choice goalkeeper, José Sa. Nuno gripped Patricio in a mighty bear hug at full-time, while Allain kneeled on the grass at the other end, alone in his thoughts.
But a wider tale unfolded here: this was a laudable triumph for a team who mined hitherto untapped reserves of fortitude to emerge victorious from their 58th match of an epic season. Although no one at Molineux likes to complain about a heavy workload as their club enjoy their first European adventure for 39 years, the extent to which it is straining their bodies was plain to see. Jonny Otto departed after 17 minutes with a knee injury and Wolves’ other wing-back, Matt Doherty, looked close to fainting after another outstanding display. “He was not very well, he ran a lot,” said Nuno who has to find a way of revitalising his players for what could prove an even bigger ordeal in five days. No one said glory comes easy.
Olympiakos did their utmost to push Wolves to extra-time. Patricio foiled them with two top-class saves. Yet early on there was no sign of the torment that Wolves would endure, as they started as if determined to secure progress as early as possible. Not a bad strategy considering that Allain was bound to be on edge on his first outing in continental competition. The keeper survived a scare in the second minute when Jiménez fired wide from the edge of the area. But there was no reprieve in the ninth minute.
The goalkeeper miscontrolled a backpass and then, over-eager to atone, shoved Daniel Podence to the ground. Jiménez showed no clemency, sending Allain the wrong way from the spot as he stroked the ball into the net.
Wolves’ dominance soon subsided as the visitors began to show the quality that had enabled them to come from behind to eliminate Arsenal earlier in the tournament. Shortly after Wolves lost Jonny to injury, Giorgos Masouras triggered the first alarm in the home area, heading wide from 10 yards. Moments later Masouras combined niftily with Kostas Tsimikas down the left, forcing Patricio to make a fine diving save to push Tsimikas’ shot round a post. Then came an even closer shave, as Mady Camara scored what he believed to be a valid goal, only for it to be nullified after a VAR review found Youssef El Arabi’s armpit to have been offside in the buildup.
But Olympiakos were emboldened nonetheless, and Wolves grew more dishevelled, misplacing passes and struggling to keep up with their opponents’ movement, most of which was choreographed by Mathieu Valbuena, still delightfully inventive at 35.
Wolves were grateful when half-time came. Olympiakos put the pressure straight back on when the match resumed, with their midfield supremacy chafing home nerves.
At least tWolves could exhale in the 55th minute thanks to an uncharacteristic miss by El Arabi, who botched a header after a fine cross by Omar Elabdellaoui. Wolves threatened rarely but Podence tested Allain, his drive from 20 yards bringing a smart save. Soon Wolves were on the defensive again, Kostas Fortounis weaving his way into the box before El Arabi shot wide. The tension weighed hard.
With 20 minutes left Nuno made the switch that had long looked necessary, introducing Leander Dendoncker to bolster midfield. Allain kept Wolves on edge by denying Jota. Then Patricio thwarted the visitors by producing the save of the match, diving full length to claw away a header by Ahmed Hassan.
“This means a lot,” Nuno added. “We started against Crusaders more than a year ago. That’s a long, long time. Now we have a fantastic victory that allows us to be in the last eight. That is huge, everybody needs to be reminded of that. It’s crazy but today we made it worth it.”