It has been a while since Wolves put on a first-half performance like this one, and Nuno Espirito Santo knows it. The offending statistic put to him this week was that they had not mustered a first-half goal since the season’s opening day, and on this perhaps evidence he took it to heart. Wolves blew an in-form Crystal Palace side away inside half an hour, with goals from the lively Daniel Podence and the assured teenage debutant Rayan Ait-Nouri, and in doing so looked something like their old selves.
Palace are a team built in the image of their manager: experienced, shrewd, pragmatic, unglamorous, not as mobile as they used to be. Nuno’s solution for Hodgsons’s well-drilled block was to deploy the guile of Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence, flitting into pockets and out again, dragging defenders a few metres off their station, just enough to loosen the brickwork.
They were supplemented by flying wing-backs who looked every inch worthy replacements for the injured Jonny Otto and departed Matt Doherty. Nelson Semedo has settled quickly since his move from Barcelona to Wolverhampton and was a constant menace down the right side, while in the 19-year-old Ait-Nouri Wolves and their go-to agent have unearthed yet another gem – though this one is French, not Portuguese.
Ait-Nouri’s goal was exquisitely taken and was some way to announce himself on the Premier League stage. The roving Podence found himself on the right side and crossed into the six-yard box, where the head of Cheikhou Kouyate rose above the crowd and touched it away from apparent danger. But there was Ait-Nouri, arriving in the box like a finely tuned Nuno wing-back should, cracking a half-volley low into the far corner. On the touchline Nuno broke into a broad, knowing grin.
Podence’s strike a few moments later was similar, although this was more about the build-up than the finish. Raul Jimenez fed Neto surging down the right who glanced up and saw his fellow Portuguese scurrier on the opposite side. His whipped cross bypassed a visibly disappointed Jimenez looking for a return but picked out Podence to perfection, who finished first time from eight yards going back across goal just as Vicente Guaita was shuffling over.
Palace were struggling to get a foothold in the game and in the rare moments they did, their luck was out. For the third game in a row Michy Batshuayi had the ball in the net only to be ruled offside, frequent enough to make you question his reading of the line. The lively Patrick van Aanholt had been the creator for Batshuayi and when the Dutchman later surged into the box and drew a penalty from Willy Boly, VAR found Van Aanholt had been offside in the build-up, the decision coming through just as Luke Milivojevic was spotting the ball.
Palace came back into the game in the second half but found themselves frustrated by a Wolves side well-drilled themselves. Wilfried Zaha had struggled to make an impact on the game and lost his cool with Ait-Nouri, squaring up and earning a yellow card. And in the final minutes their day was complete when Milivojevic chopped down Joao Moutinho, a poor tackle which was rightly met with a red card once VAR had encouraged Martin Atkinson to check his pitchside monitor.
A night to forget to Palace, on an unforgettable night for the young Ait-Nouri.