Wolves’ Surge to the Champions League

When people think of traditional clubs who compete on the biggest European setting there is, footballing powerhouses such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Manchester United, and AC Milan, spring to mind. I’m not sure many football fans would immediately think of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

It would surprise many to know that they were one of the spearheads behind the creation of the European Cup, which of course led to the Champions League that we know today. In the 1950s, Wolves went through the most prosperous decades in their history, winning three league titles, including two of them back-to-back.

Not only did they win honours, but they were also innovators in the sport. As one of the first clubs to invest in floodlighting in Britain, they initiated a set of games known as “floodlit friendlies”, playing against some of the best teams in the world. The most famous amongst the opposition was Budapest Honved, a side which boasted some of the best players of the 1950s, including Ferenc Puskas.

Wolves defeated Honved and such was the occasion under the lights, Gabriel Hanot, the editor of L’Equipe, felt he had to do something. The game of football, in its newest form under the bright lights, would now structure Hanot’s proposal of the creation of the European Cup.

Wolves were one of the first British clubs to participate in the tournament, taking their place in the fourth instalment of the competition, but only making the first round.

Wolves had slightly more success when they were back in the European Cup the following season, reaching the Quarter-Finals, and being defeated by Spanish giants, Barcelona. Since the Catalan side overcame Wolves, they have been in the Cup Winners Cup once and the UEFA Cup on five occasions, including finishing runners up in 1972.

The bright lights of Europe’s best competition has evaded the club, however. They haven’t had a chance to dazzle in UEFA’s flagship competition, but who knows, this upcoming season could see the return of the Midlands side in what was once familiar for them..

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First and foremost, the addition of the pathway for Europa League winners to qualify for the Champions League, could pay dividends for Wanderers. Olympiacos stand in Wolves’ way in the round of 16, with the competition’s new look setup now decided.

World Cup style, straight knockout ties, taking place in Germany throughout August. Similar will be happening for the Champions League, Wolves’ hopeful destination, in Lisbon.

Though the remaining teams they could play include the likes of Sevilla and Roma in the Quarter-Finals, and potentially Manchester United in the Semis. The fact it is a knockout game at a neutral venue could work in Wolves’ favour, although even with that in place, any games at that stage of European competition will be extremely tough.

Although I’m sure Wolves will go all out to win the Europa League, their best route to getting Champions League football may have been through the domestic league standings. When you look at the English teams who have played in the Champions League over the last few years, such as Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United, it isn’t easy to comprehend how some may miss out to a team like Wolves.

A team like Wolves? By that comment, I’d like to remind you of the team playing in the Championship as recently as the 2017-2018 season. This can often be forgotten with the type of football on show at The Molineux, but it’s very real.

Massive credit has to go to the manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, who has led his team to where they find themselves today, by building a team capable of winning by playing attractive football, while also maintaining a solid defensive foundation.

In his first season in charge, he made 12 signings in the summer, relying on talent from his home country of Portugal, including eventual fans favourite, Ruben Neves. The Portuguese playmaker became a crucial component in the team’s surge to the Premier League, as he worried the Championship’s defences when the ball fell to him just outside of the area.

Wolves had an unbelievable season in the Championship, winning promotion with four games to go, and eventually winning the title a week later, returning to the Premier League for the first time in six years. They scored the most and conceded the least, while leading the pack since the 18th November. Their exploits showcased the sheer dominance of the team who developed so far from the side who had previously finished 15th and 14th in the last two seasons. Nuno Espirito Santo had inspired a footballing revolution in the Midlands.

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Meanwhile in the Premier League, Manchester City had a similar season of dominance. Pep’s Citizens won the treble, including obtaining the Premier League title while gaining the most points ever in League season.

Nuno Espirito Santo ensured that Wolves were prepared for the seismic challenge ahead with more astute summer signings including the tricky winger Adama Traore, and the talented, experienced head in midfielder Joao Moutinho. Even with his new acquisitions, many doubted the Wolves bosses’ survival chances, and his team’s credentials to stay up, let alone to have a successful season.

They again proved everyone wrong, and in some fashion. Wolves maintained their playing style while adapting against bigger opposition, and getting some significant results in the process. Wolves triumphed against Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Arsenal, while managing to get a draw against champions, Manchester City.

Nuno’s men finished 7th and managed to qualify for the Europa League, via Manchester City’s FA Cup win; a truly remarkable feat for any team in such a short space of time. The gaffer had managed to build a team with strength in all positions. Rui Patricio in goal and a solid defence makeup including Matt Doherty, Jonny and Conor Coady, ensured leaking goals was not a major concern. The abundance of creative midfield players like Moutinho, Neves, and Pedro Neto, and a frightening attack of Traore and new signing ahead of the 2019-2020 season, Raul Jimenez, meant that goals would come.

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The Midlands side have continued to be a force to be reckoned with this season. Despite the congested fixture list, Wolves have maintained their quality on the pitch following the restart.

With only two games left until the end of the season, and five teams battling for the two remaining Champions League spots, it remains to be seen whether they clinch that coveted Champions League place, although unlikely, this time around.

Nevertheless, Wolves have become a team to admire, especially in the way they have transformed in such a short space of time. The return to the Champions League may just be out of reach for now, but you can be confident that Nuno’s men will give it their all next season.

Written by: Ciaran Mcloughlin – @Ciaran_Mc_1

Graphics: Sam Ingram – @SamIngram_