Rúben Neves mentioned in the buildup that one of his Braga midfield counterparts, Ricardo Horta, happens to be his best friend. Well, sometimes good pals have to tell harsh truths. On Thursday night, Horta scored a goal that informed Wolves they cannot get away with sloppy mistakes in the Europa League any more than they can in the Premier League. It was a lesson they did not need and a start to the group campaign that they did not want.
Ryan Bennett, in particular, would gladly have been spared the lesson but there is no escaping that he inadvertently set up the decisive goal by giving the ball away to Galeno near halfway. The excellent winger raced forward and crossed for Horta, who finished emphatically from the edge of the area. Braga, nifty technicians, were never likely to pardon basic lapses.
Wolves had won all six of their qualifying matches to reach the group stage, their European form offering a pleasing contrast to their struggles in the Premier League, where they are second bottom after five matches. They were seldom flaky last season but are now brittle in all competitions. The worry is the extra workload is taking a toll but Nuno Espírito Santo rejects that theory. Nor would he point the finger at Bennett, which is fair enough, as the defender is far from the only Wolves player to have blundered this season. What matters is how to regain the solidity of last season.
“We realise the situation we are in,” said Nuno. “The reality says we are not performing well so we have to analyse and find solutions. We have to come strong on Sunday [against Crystal Palace], we have to react immediately.”
For a while here Wolves were solid, justifying the manager’s decision to restore Bennett and Willy Boly to the back three, with the fit-again Matt Doherty starting at right wing-back. They had an early warning they would need to be vigilant against Braga, who were quick to make liars of the league table in Portugal, where they are third from bottom. Conor Coady had to make a good block from a shot by Fransérgio in the first minute after dazzling work down the left by Galeno.
Wolves tightened up and gradually took the upper hand. Neves unloaded their first shot in the 10th minute, a dipping effort from 20 yards that dropped over the bar. Six minutes later he deposited a wonderful pass from deep on to the foot of Patrick Cutrone but the striker’s miscontrol meant a clear chance vanished.
Cutrone, endearingly energetic, does not get downhearted quickly and he did much better in the 22nd minute when, after excellent work by Raúl Jiménez, he used strength and skill to flummox Bruno Viana before blasting just over the bar from eight yards.
Galeno then served a reminder of Braga’s threat by embarking on another sortie down the wing – the left this time – before wrong-footing Coady, who put an arm across the attacker’s chest in desperation. Fortunately for Wolves, the referee decided that did not explain Galeno’s subsequent fall.
Just before the break Braga had reason to be thankful when Cutrone failed to find the target from 12 yards after classy service by Doherty.
Wolves would have opened the scoring in the 54th minute if not for a brilliant reflex save by Matheus, who stuck out a foot to turn away a low shot by Leander Dendoncker.
In search of more ingenuity against disciplined opponents, Nuno turned to João Moutinho with just over half an hour to go. Braga remained pesky on the counterattack, however, and they scored after, alas, another mistake by a Wolves defender.
“This is another historic victory for Braga and Portuguese football,” said the Braga manager, Ricardo Sá Pinto. “It is not every day you win away to a Premier League team and, in my opinion, Wolves are one of the best teams in the Premier League.”
Nuno is looking for a way to prove that is still true.