Ruben Neves' art matched by Jota’s treble delight for Wolves
Big occasions require players and moments to match, and not for the first time in their Wolves careers, Diogo Jota and Ruben Neves proved up to the challenge.
Neves’s latest addition to an increasingly impressive collection of stunning goals was the defining moment of the club’s first foray into the latter stages of European competition for nearly half a century, writes chief sports writer Matt Maher.
Jota’s hat-trick, meanwhile, ensured Nuno Espirito Santo and his team will head to Barcelona next week with one foot already firmly planted in the Europa League last 16.
For the first 51 minutes, Wolves’ performance had been competent if unspectacular and though they led through Jota’s early opener, neither were they completely in control against an Espanyol team who were gaining confidence. Neves changed that in an instant, chesting the ball down 25 yards from goal and unleashing a powerful strike into the corner, which brought an ear-splitting noise bursting around Molineux.
It also floored the visitors, Jota hitting two more before the finish to surely make next week’s second leg a mere formality.
In terms of technique, Neves’s goal might not quite have been in the same category as his famous goal against Derby two years ago next month. Yet this was a far grander occasion.
To understand the size of the evening and its importance to Wolves, you only needed to take a glance at a directors’ box, which included the rare presence of Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang.
Nuno’s typically brief programme notes had, meanwhile, included the plea for fans to ‘be the difference’.
Those in the South Bank needed no invitation, raising the decibel levels when Adama Traore skipped away from an opponent and charged away from his opponent in the second minute, starting a move which ended with Joao Moutinho firing over the bar.
Traore was causing problems every time he got the ball and helped create the opener. The winger skipped past Didac Vila, turned inside again and won the corner from which Moutinho crossed, Jimenez flicked and Jota, via the aid of a deflection off Victor Sanchez, steered the ball into the net to set Wolves and Molineux up and running.
Wolves weren’t quite so comfortable for Patricio to be attempting a party piece. Just before the half-hour mark, the home goalkeeper attempted to volley a clearance, missed the ball not once but twice and then had to save at the feet of Facundo Ferreyra.
Patricio looked to the heavens and let out a sigh so big it might have been audible to those supporters sat on the front few rows of the stand behind him. Ander Iturraspe’s sudden show of aggression near the end of the first half was out of keeping with a match which until then was yet to seriously spark. The Espanyol defender thrust his head into Jota’s and was fortunate to only receive a yellow card, Nuno wagging a finger of displeasure at German referee Tobias Sieler’s decision.
Espanyol actually started the second half the brighter and went close to a leveller when Wu Lei headed narrowly wide.
But they were quickly floored by Neves, the Portuguese midfielder celebrating his latest picture book strike by cupping his ears to the South Bank.
At that point, the headlines looked certain to be his. Yet by the finish, Jota was sharing them – two players who have played a key role in the Wolves’ rise once more having combined to set up the next stage of the club’s Europa League journey.