Where has it all gone wrong for Wolves? An eighth successive Premier League match without a victory following Eberechi Eze’s excellent goal meant Crystal Palace gained revenge for their FA Cup defeat this month to move above their opponents in the table.
But in the week Nuno Espírito Santo made a donation of £250,000 to a new initiative supporting local food banks, the manner in which his side handed over the points here will be a major concern. Against opponents who had also been struggling for form, it was only during the last 10 minutes when the Palace goalkeeper, Vicente Guaita, had any reason to fear his clean sheet could be under threat as the hosts hung on for their first victory since 2 January.
“For sure, yes,” Nuno said when asked if this is the toughest spell since he took over as manager in May 2017. “We should step up for it. We have a lot of concerns – creativity, speed and breaking the lines – we should do better.”
Roy Hodgson’s response to Palace’s 3-2 defeat to West Ham on Tuesday was to make six changes, with the Chelsea loanee Michy Batshuayi making his fifth Premier League start of the season. Nathaniel Clyne – who signed a deal until the end of the season this week having not featured since the end of December – also returned to the starting lineup, while new signing Jean-Philippe Mateta was named on the bench.
Between them, these sides had managed one victory in their past 14 league matches and come into this match with identical records and 10 points clear of the relegation zone. The chances of either being sucked into a scrap remain slim yet there has been a growing sense of staleness at both.
The loss of Raúl Jiménez has had a severe effect on Wolves’ season and with £35m teenager Fábio Silva left on the bench until late on, Nuno turned to Willian José to lead the attack. This is the seventh loan of the 29-year-old Brazilian’s career having spent five years on the books of Uruguayan side Deportivo Maldonado but never making an appearance for them.
He found a home at Real Sociedad, having reached double figures in La Liga the past four seasons before moving on loan last week, and could easily have opened his account here if it was not for Guaita.
Palace had begun brightest when Wilfried Zaha missed the target after being set up by Batshuayi before Clyne’s effort from outside the box in the 10th minute whistled just over.
José came close to finding a crucial touch to a brilliant cross from Ki-Jana Hoever, while his flick inside the area just eluded Leander Dendoncker. Zaha was then incensed when the referee, Simon Hooper, waved away his appeal for a penalty after a tackle from Conor Coady. Replays showed that the Wolves captain had got a crucial touch of the ball.
But the best chance of a first half low on entertainment came to Batshuayi, who lifted his effort from six yards out well over the bar, after the ball had fallen to him following Clyne’s mis-hit shot.
With Hodgson’s assistant, Ray Lewington – usually a vocal presence on the touchline – still absent due to Covid, Palace needed to find inspiration from elsewhere and were indebted to their keeper for ensuring the scores were level at the start of the second half. José seized on Daniel Podence’s cross and his goalbound half-volley was tipped over by Guaita.
The winning goal came soon after and was the result of excellent play from Jordan Ayew, although Eze’s dummy to evade the challenge of Dendoncker before smashing home with his left foot was a moment to savour from the playmaker who excelled in Palace’s more attacking formation. “It’s something we will definitely try again,” said Hodgson.
Nuno immediately turned to Adama Traoré but it was Palace who should have extended their lead with 20 minutes to play when Zaha struck the crossbar following a swift break downfield with Batshuayi.
Another superb Guaita save to deny José’s header from a corner 10 minutes from time just about summed up Wolves’ luck at the moment.