After close to forty years outside of European competition, tonight is a big night for Wolves. Less than one full year on from their first game back in the Premier League under Nuno Espirito Santo, the Black Country side face their first Europa League tie. It’s not the most exotic encounter; their opponents in this second-round qualifying tie are Crusaders, who make the short hop across from Belfast and are cast very much in the role of underdogs.
The Shore Road side finished fourth in the Northern Irish Premiership last season, and came through a first-round meeting with Torshavn of the Faroe Islands. Boss Stephen Baxter has been realistic about the task that faces his charges, indicating that he’d be happy to get back on the plane with a 3-0 margin after tonight’s meeting at Molineux. With Wolves likely to be a few players light, Nuno will meanwhile simply be hoping that his side can continue the decent form of a pre-season in which they have thrashed Newcastle 4-0 and beaten Premier League champions Manchester City on penalties.
An unmistakable gulf in class
By Northern Irish domestic standards, the Crues have a decent pedigree, having provided players for the national team and also been the launchpad for players who have thrived elsewhere including Leeds’ Stuart Dallas. However, like the vast majority of clubs in the NIFL, this is a part-time side; winger Philip Lowry works as an accountant in London during the week. Crusaders nearly went bankrupt at the beginning of the 21st Century, and the club’s entire asset base, players included, amounts to just over a million pounds. That’s about 3% of what their opponents paid for Raul Jimenez earlier this month.
In short, even allowing for some ring-rustiness, one would expect the home side to win comfortably this evening. Odds of 11/2 are available at 888 on Wolves winning this match 5-0, and that would be a far from surprising outcome given the fact they have home advantage and can afford to rest Jimenez, who has just returned to club duty having spent much of the summer on international duty winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup with Mexico.
Organisation key for the part-timers
There is absolutely no point in Crues attempting to go toe-to-toe with their opponents this evening. While it would no doubt make for a stirring spectacle for the fans who will make the trip, it would also more or less ensure an absolute hammering against a side who train day-in-day-out and will have the edge in terms of fitness as well as everything else. Baxter will know this and is sure to send his side out with a plan to contain the Premier League side as best they can – this will place a lot of responsibility on club captain and Northern Ireland international Colin Coates, whose experience in defence will be called upon for the whole 90 minutes.
The unpalatable truth for Crusaders fans is that, as organised as they may be, they’re simply not going to have the ability to contain their opposition for the entire match. Particularly the longer the game goes on, gaps are sure to appear. Wolves forward Morgan Gibbs-White, who is expected to have a big impact at Molineux this season, is likely to start in Jimenez’s absence and is priced at 2/1 by Northern Irish bookies Toals to score during the game. In his – largely cameo – appearances for Wolves so far, Gibbs-White has looked extremely impressive, and playing from the start against weaker opposition, he has the chance to cut loose.
A long evening for the visitors
It seems clear that Crusaders – who won at home and away against their Faroese opposition in the first qualifying round – will show up with the intent to give a good account of themselves. With the start of the domestic season just over a fortnight away, a humiliation here wouldn’t be the best way to prepare for a campaign in which they hope to improve on last season’s fourth spot. Nonetheless, they are up against a side with numerous Portuguese internationals and one which has a possession-based style of play that will make life very hard for the part-timers in the Crues set-up.
One thing we can be sure of is that the visitors will have to do a lot of running just to keep up with their more vaunted opponents. With Britain in the grip of a heatwave, there is a realistic chance that the visitors will be out on their feet as the match draws to a close. It’s worth looking at William Hill, and their odds of 6/5 on a goal being scored between the 86th minute and full time. In games like this, fitness so often tells the longer the game goes on. Given that Wolves can pull international players off their bench at the end of the night, the feeling of a mismatch will only grow as the sky gets darker, so the possibility of a late goal is all the more pronounced.