Stick or Twist? Always a dilemma and one faced by Dean Smith in advance of the trip to Molineux. He promised a strong lineup saying that he valued the cup, so it was something of a surprise to see four changes from the game against Watford – five by the time kick-off came around.
A change back to 4-3-3 was designed to nullify the Wolves five-man midfield and Billy Gilmour was dropped straight back in to replace the luckless Jacob Sorensen. Michael McGovern was a surprise in goal and the sight of Przemysław Placheta walking out surprised most – Josh Sargent dropping out after the initial team was announced.
The game began with all the pace of a grandmaster chess match – and continued in that manner for most of the first half. What was very noticeable was the increased confidence amongst the City players – the passing out of defence was more precise and effective than possibly any time this season.
Wolves posed the occasional threat with sweeping balls out wide, using the overlapping full-backs to good effect, but the City defence stood strong.
Whilst not dominant in the possession statistics, it was the Canaries that were creating the most effective chances. Adam Idah had the best, springing the offside trap but he took one touch too many and his shot was saved by John Ruddy.
From the resultant poor corner, as Ruddy ran out looking to spring a quick break, Grant Hanley ran into the back of him, earning a yellow card for the privilege. Moments later City won the ball in midfield and fed Idah wide on the right – his cut-back was behind all the advancing City players.
McGovern was having a quiet game with the Wolves attacks barely stretching him. He was quickly off the line to clear when a looping long ball hung up and didn’t make it into the area.
Midway through the half, the game descended into a scrappy affair with a string of free kicks. Pierre Lees-Melou made a slightly clumsy tackle on Neves whose theatrics were way out of proportion to the contact, yet convinced referee Coote to flourish the yellow card. Barely a minute later, Dendoncker cleaned out Gilmour with considerably more ferocity but the only result was a free-kick.
City were making sure that they took their time with all set pieces and free kicks, much to the annoyance of the home crowd – the restlessness was palpable amongst the locals.
City came close again on 32, Lees-Melou played a neat through ball to put Milot Rashica through on goal, only to be denied by an inch-perfect tackle by Kilman. The home crowd were further annoyed 10 minutes later, Podence going down in close proximity to Hanley. Quite why his dive received no punishment from the referee is a mystery.
As the half drew to a close, Rashica was clumsily challenged wide on the left. He went down, much to the fury of the home support, and Gilmour stepped up to take the kick.
McLean made a great run towards the corner of the six-yard box and his looping back-header beat everyone into the top corner. There wasn’t time for the kick-off and City went in at halftime on top.
The second half started at a pace in direct contrast to the pedestrian first. Wolves flooded forward in a wave of attacks. Hanley and Gibson mopped up most of the threats in the centre. Brandon Williams, while tested frequently by Semeda, rarely succumbed. City held on resolutely and finally broke the possession with some calm, measured passing.
On 49 minutes, Ruddy was dispossessed by Idah in the area. The former City keeper bundled into the back of the young striker to win possession back and Wolves broke.
Gilmour’s rash challenge, fortunately, missed everything but McLean made sure with a pull-back to stop the break, taking a yellow ‘for the team’. The resultant free-kick was into a dangerous area but bounced away from Silva into McGovern’s arms.
Wolves continued to flood players forward yet attack after attack was blunted by a resolute City rearguard. It took until 60 minutes for City to ease the pressure again with another spell of controlled passing.
Bruno Lage went for broke on 63, matching up City with a 4-3-3 by bringing Jimenez on for Gomes. Minutes later the ball ricocheted between heads and bounced in Wolves’ favour, resulting in a 3 v 2. Hanley did superbly well to cover and disrupt the cross, which flew harmlessly into McGovern’s hand.
Dean Smith rang the changes too, Teemu Pukki and Mathias Normann replacing Idah and McLean, then moments later Kieran Dowell replaced Gilmour.
City continued to disrupt and delay the game and the dissatisfaction amongst the home fans was made loud and clear. The Canaries only took heart from this and continued to thwart every effort made by the home team.
At the other end, City continued to make chances, Dowell had a shot saved. From the corner, Hanley was beaten at the back post but referee Coote gave a goal kick.
Wolves’ most threatening move came on 90 minutes, a whipped cross by Chiquhinho met by Silva but his powerful header was well over. Wolves struck back again with a slick move, a clever backheel set them through to win another corner. Ruddy came up for it but when the Wolves shot came in, it was well wide.
McGovern became the latest player to be booked, this time for timewasting.
The ball was knocked forward and Placheta had a shot straight at Ruddy. Moments later, Pukki was through, he cut back and his shot was blocked. The rebound was shepherded out for a corner as the final whistle went.
This was the sort of City performance to give heart to all supporters. Gritty, determined, difficult to break down whilst at the same time providing a decent threat on the opposition goal. The defence was solid, even when stretched the covering players did well.
In midfield, Wolves afforded Gilmour the time and space that he thrives in. He was effective in possession, if rarely eye-catching. Idah tried hard but without the support of Pukki, he struggled to create the same threat of previous games.
City showed battling qualities not evident earlier in the season, while the quality of their possession also showed a marked improvement.
Three wins in a row now, with the serious business of the league to resume midweek, this performance and result will have done no harm to City’s survival prospects.