Wolverhampton Wanderers slumped to a late defeat as Anwar El Ghazi netted a stoppage time penalty to decide a gritty, ill-tempered West Midlands derby.
The home side were coming off the back of their worst result of the season following a second half capitulation at champions Liverpool, eventually conceding four in defeat at Anfield. Nuno Espirito Santo resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes for the visit of rivals Aston Villa, though, electing to bring in Fabio Silva and Romain Saiss for Ruben Neves and Willy Boly.
After running with a back three for their entire Premier League existence since their return in 2018, this marked the third consecutive league game where the Wolves manager has chosen to field a back four. At 18 years and 146 days old, Wolves’ record signing Silva became the second youngest player ever to have started a Premier League game for the home side at Molineux, behind only Anthony Forde.
Wolves weren’t the only team handing a first Premier League start to a teenager, though, as 19 year old Jacob Ramsey came into the Aston Villa team, in one of two changes from the previous league game vs West Ham; Ramsey and Bertrand Traore replaced Conor Hiourihane and Trezeguet for the away side.
Wolves, and Silva, almost made a dream start to the match, as an excellent right wing cross was delivered inside the first minute, with the Portuguese youngster just unable to reach it to apply the telling touch. From the resulting corner, the ball was narrowly cleared off the head of Conor Coady, the Wolves captain still looking for his first top flight goal.
As both teams settled, it was clear that the Wolves boss was looking to set his team up in a relatively deep, low block, aiming to utilise the pace of his front three, with long balls into the channels a feature of the home side’s early attacking exploits.
In the 11th minute, great work from Pedro Neto on the halfway line allowed a turnover in possession, with the Wolves man driving into space and looking to play in Daniel Podence, who was arriving in the middle. However, Villa keeper Emiliano Martinez bravely slid in at the feet of the onrushing Wolves man to deny what would have been an excellent goalscoring opportunity.
The remainder of the opening half hour, though, saw a cagey affair, with three Aston Villa players picking up bookings (including Matty Cash, who took the dubious honour of becoming the victim of referee Mike Dean’s 3000th Premier League yellow card). Wolves looked organised, and crucially, were denying Jack Grealish the time and space required to help give the away side the breakthrough.
As half time loomed, still it was the home side having the better of several half chances, with Daniel Podence looking particularly lively operating between the lines, just behind Fabio Silva. In the 37th minute, good touch and skill 25 yards from goal from Podence allowed him to unleash a low drive towards goal, which was well saved down to Martinez’s left.
Another Wolves breakaway after an extended period of neat but non-penetrative Villa possession saw the ball fall to Leandro Dendoncker on the edge of the penalty area, courtesy of a smart low ball from Adama Traore, but once again the shot was blocked by the impressive-looking Martinez.
Despite a strong Aston Villa rally during the final 5 minutes of the half, highlighted by more strong running and a number of teasing crosses from Matty Cash in particular, the two teams went in at half time on level terms, following a largely attritional half of football high in intensity but low on quality.
HALF TIME – Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-0 Aston Villa
There were no changes of personnel for either side at half time, although the Wolves manager did elect to swap his wide attackers, with Traore operating from the left hand side in the second half, and Neto now positioned on the opposite flank.
Villa started the second half as they had ended the first – on top – and although Wolves continued to look a threat on the break, the team in old gold were now coming under their first period of concerted pressure from their West Midlands rivals.
Nevertheless, as the game reached the hour mark, neither side had managed to create a clear cut opportunity, with Ollie Watkins failing to connect with a couple more dangerous-looking Matty Cash crosses from wide on Villa’s right. At the other end, Adama Traore wasted a good opportunity by serving up a comfortable save for Martinez with two or three of his teammates arguing they were better placed.
Still Wolves sat deep, seemingly content to try to absorb the pressure being exerted by the men in claret and blue, who went ever closer as Ollie Watkins had a shot well saved by Rui Patricio after making space in the left channel.
Then, in the 69th minute, Wolves came within a post’s width of taking a valuable lead; clever feet again from Podence created space between the lines, and he slipped a perfectly weighted through ball to Fabio Silva in behind the Villa defence. The young striker fired a low shot across the goal, which beat Martinez but cannoned back off the base of the far post and to safety.
Given that Silva’s close call was the first real clear-cut opportunity of the game, it was something of a surprise that it took until the 75th minute for the first substitution of the game to be made, as Anwar El Ghazi replaced Bertrand Traore for Aston Villa.
Shortly afterwards, there was a 76th minute booking for Leander Dendoncker for a shirt pull in midfield, but the Belgian midfielder almost came up with a much more positive contribution moments later.
More good running on the left from Pedro Neto resulted in a rabona cross into a good area for Wolves, and Dendoncker looked set to take took full advantage, arriving late in the penalty area and sending a well hit strike towards Martinez’ goal. Once again, though, the Villa keeper was equal to it, diving to his left and palming it away.
This was to be Dendoncker’s last action of the game, as he was replaced by Ruben Neves on 80 minutes.
The following ten minutes were a microcosm of the game as a whole – scruffy, at times cynical, with both outfits resorting to increasingly desperate tactics to try to gain the upper hand. The 81st minute saw bookings for both Matt Targett and Ezri Konsa, whilst Joao Moutinho was booked less than 60 seconds later for preventing a Jack Grealish breakway.
The ill discipline on show finally came to a head in the 85th minute, as Villa’s Douglas Luiz was sent off for a second bookable offense, mindlessly leading with his elbow in an aerial challenge with the diminutive Daniel Podence following a throw in.
Despite the red card, the game looked to be petering out towards an uneventful goalless stalemate, however there was to be one more twist in the tale. Just as the game entered 5 minutes of stoppage time, Grealish and McGinn combined well down the left side, with the latter shifting the ball well around Nelson Semedo and jinking into the penalty area. Where the former Barcelona man had shown excellent temperament in not fouling Grealish in a similar situation in the first half, this time Semedo was rash, pulling the Irishman down and giving Mike Dean no choice but to point to the spot.
Substitute Anwar El Ghazi emphatically sent Patricio the wrong way to give Aston Villa a late, late lead, which was not to be relinquished.
Joao Moutinho compounded the misery for Nuno Espirito Santo’s men, picking up a second booking which led to a needless 95th minute sending off, leaving us with 10 vs 10 for the final moments of the game.
The final whistle was punctuated with visceral roars of delight from the men in claret and blue, highlighting just how much the derby day honours mean to them, especially with the win coming so late. The stoppage time sucker punch, though, will hit particularly hard for Wolves and their fans. After two consecutive defeats and zero goals scored, they will be looking ahead to a difficult December featuring league fixtures against Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United wondering exactly how their team will be able to bounce back without talismanic striker Raul Jimenez.
WOLVES MOTM: Daniel Podence