Wolves’ Europa League odyssey will continue into the quarter-finals thanks to a gruelling victory over the champions of Greece. Raúl Jiménez converted a penalty to give Nuno Espírito Santo’s side an early lead but Olympiakos made them sweat and Rui Patrício excel before the final whistle triggered joy and relief at Molineux. Wolves will face Sevilla in Germany on Tuesday.
This was Wolves’ 58th game of the season but, after waiting 39 years to go on a European adventure, no one at Molineux was complaining about the prospect of extending their campaign. From the very start of this expedition against Crusaders nearly 13 months ago Nuno vowed to embrace the challenge and his players have carried that wish through.
Conor Coady billed the visit of the Greek champions as one of the biggest nights in Wolves’ modern history and rallied his teammates by reminding them of the feats that had taken them this far: “We’ve made incredible memories like [Willy] Boly’s winner at Besiktas, qualifying for the knockout stages in Braga rain, Diogo [Jota]’s hat-tricks [against Besiktas and Espanyol], Raúl’s goal in Torino, taking 48 fans to Armenia – they’ve been amazing memories and we want more.”
Memorable though they were, Jota’s hat-tricks in the last two home matches in the competition were not enough to earn him a starting place this time. Nuno opted to entrust the left side of Wolves’ attack to Daniel Podence, who had the advantage of knowing the opponents better than anyone having played for Olympiakos until being lured to Molineux for £17m in January.
Although the onus was on the visitors to attack following the 1-1 draw in the first leg, Wolves had no intention of relying on the away goal to progress. They started as if determined to overwhelm Bobby Allain, the visitors’ reserve goalkeeper making his European debut in place of the injured José Sá. Allain survived a scare in the second minute when Jiménez fired just wide from the edge of the area. But there was no reprieve in the ninth minute after Allain bungled to gift Wolves a penalty.
The goalkeeper miscontrolled a backpass and then, in his zeal to atone, shoved Podence to the ground. Jiménez showed no clemency, sending Allain the wrong way from the spot as he stroked the ball into the net.
Jiménez put the ball in almost the same place five minutes later but this time Allain caught a break, as the referee judged the goalkeeper to have been fouled by Romain Saïss before the ball broke to Jiménez. Wolves’ dominance subsided as the visitors began to show the quality that had enabled them to come from behind to eliminate Arsenal earlier in the tournament.
Shortly after Wolves lost Jonny Otto to injury, Giorgos Masouras triggered the first alarm in the home area, heading wide from 10 yards. Moments later Masouras combined niftily with Kostas Tsimikas down the left, forcing Rui Patrício to make a fine diving save to push Tsimikas’ shot around the post. Then came an even closer shave, as Mohamed Camara scored what he believed to be a valid goal, only for it to be nullified after a VAR review found Youssef El Arabi’s armpit to have been offside in the buildup.
But Olympiakos were emboldened, nonetheless, and Wolves grew more dishevelled, misplacing passes and struggling to keep up with their opponents’ movement, most of which was choreographed by Mathieu Valbuena, still delightfully inventive at 35.
Wolves were grateful when half-time came. But Olympiakos put the pressure straight back on when the match resumed, with their midfield supremacy chafing home nerves.
At least the hosts could exhale in the 55th minute thanks to an uncharacteristic miss by El Arabi, who botched a header after a fine cross by Omar Elabdellaoui. Nuno knew he could not let the match continue as it was going. He replaced Adama Traoré – ineffective going forward, slipshod defensively – with Jota. Podence was the first to test Allain again, his drive from 20 yards bringing a smart save.
Soon the threat reappeared at the other end, Kostas Fortounis weaving his way into the box before El Arabi shot just wide. The match was in the balance, the tension weighed hard.
With 20 minutes left Nuno introduced Leander Dendoncker to bolster midfield. Allain kept Wolves on edge by denying Jota. Then Patrício tormented the visitors by producing the save of the match, diving full length to claw away a header by Ahmed Hassan.