The Champions League push is in full gear for Wolverhampton, who have a chance to claim fifth place in the table Wednesday when they host a Bournemouth squad trying to fight their way off the top of the drop.
Wolves (11-13-6) trail Manchester United on goal difference for fifth, a spot that may provide entry into the Champions League qualifying rounds should the Court of Arbitration for Sport uphold UEFA’s two-year ban of Manchester City in European play for financial irregularities.
Already in the round of 16 in the Europa League – which is slated to restart next month in Germany as a knockout tournament should they get past Olympiacos – Nuno Espirito Santo’s team still have two paths to Europe’s top club tournament.
Nuno again showed he has the pulse of his team, opening Wolves’ Project Restart with a 2-0 victory at West Ham United on Saturday. His introduction of Adama Traore and Pedro Neto on 64 minutes proved decisive – the always direct Traore set up Raul Jimenez’s goal nine minutes later to break a scoreless deadlock, and Neto smashed a first-time volley from a cross by Matt Doherty six minutes from time to seal the win.
«Adama is a special player, he’s unique and I think he can have an impact (whether he starts or is a substitute),» Nuno said in praise of his two star players in Saturday’s win to the team’s official website. «When he’s on the pitch, he’s already having an impact on the game, of course he has things to improve.
«I think it’s the way Neto prepares. Not only him, but all the squad, during these three months of pandemic we’ve been away. I think the recipe is clear; hard work. That’s what enables you to perform well on the pitch. That’s what Pedro and all of the players have been doing.»
Jimenez scored his 14th goal in league play, bettering the mark set by Javier Hernandez with Manchester United in 2010-11 for the most in a Premier League season by a Mexico international and equaled by Jimenez last term during Wolves’ overachieving season following promotion.
With Manchester United and seventh-place Sheffield United – two points back of the pair – squaring off Wednesday at Old Trafford, Wolverhampton have an opportunity to gain ground at the expense of one or both rivals with three points at Molineux. Still, players are not looking past Bournemouth in their Champions League bid.
«They’re still a very good team,» midfielder Leander Dendoncker insisted about Bournemouth. «We will have to be at our best again to beat them. They are fighting against relegation, so they will be really motivated and I think we will have to try and be even more motivated to keep the three points at home.»
The Cherries’ quest to remain in the Premier League for a sixth consecutive season following the first promotion to the top flight in club history in 2015 is in serious jeopardy. Bournemouth (7-6-17) are at the top of the drop on 27 points with eight matches remaining, trailing West Ham on goal difference while also one point back of Watford for 16th place. Eddie Howe’s team stumbled out of the blocks for Project Restart, losing 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday as their winless drought reached five matches (0-1-4).
«We are in a very difficult position, we’re fighting to try to stay in the league,» Howe told the Bournemouth Echo. «But one win, one result changes everything. It changes perceptions, changes our position, changes the whole outlook from everybody connected with this football club.
«We have to be very strong, very resolute and rise to the challenge that is in front of us.»
One positive for Howe is the potential availability of striker Joshua King. The Norway international was forced off shortly after halftime with an ankle injury, but it was not as bad as originally feared. Midfielder David Brooks made a very belated season debut after dealing with an ankle injury of his own, and the Wales international logged just over an hour.
Wolves are 2-1-0 versus Bournemouth since being promoted last term and are seeking the double after a 2-1 victory at Dean Court in November. Jimenez and Joao Moutinho scored first-half goals and repelled a charge from the 10-man Cherries as Steve Cook pulled one back on 59 minutes.
Jimenez has scored in all three of Wolverhampton’s matchups with Bournemouth.