Espanyol landed the first punch and the last but Wolves knocked them out, as everyone knew they would. The decisive blows had been delivered at Molineux last week when Nuno Espírito Santo’s team took a four-goal lead; now they had to just finish the Spaniards off and they did so swiftly, but that tells only a part of the story. In a game that did not change the final outcome and was never likely to, Espanyol led three times, Wolves eventually losing 3-2 but progressing 6-3 on aggregate.
Matt Doherty got the visitors’ second equaliser late on, only for Jonathan Calleri to head in an even later winner. And yet it was Wolves’ first goal from Adama Traoré that effectively ended the tie, if not the match, after 22 minutes.
Calleri had opened the scoring and he later gave Espanyol the lead for the second time when Max Kilman kicked David López in the face to concede a penalty. Then, right at the end, Pipa stood up a lovely cross from which Calleri headed the winner and completed a hat-trick. He had scored more in one night than in every game this season put together. He left with the match ball, but there was no celebration: this was already long over as a genuine contest.
It was a game, though, and highly entertaining. Far better than expected: there was excitement, edge and five goals. There was even a comedy of errors, Adrià Pedrosa letting Pedro Neto run clean through two minutes from time. Neto went around the goalkeeper, but somehow put the ball wide, hiding his face in his shirt, the stadium laughing. That would have been a Wolves winner; instead Espanyol got it. Not that it ruined a day out for Wolves’ fans, another leg of a journey that continues around the continent.
“If Buster Douglas can beat Mike Tyson, why not us?” Abelardo Fernández had said. “Why can’t we be Douglas?” It is 30 years since that night in Tokyo when a 42-1 outsider caused the greatest upset in boxing history and provided athletes everywhere with a reason to believe in miracles. But while Espanyol punched back, here there was none.
Wolves were 90% through, the Espanyol manager conceded, but a strong starting XI underlined they were taking this seriously. Nuno found no starting place for Diogo Jota, Rúben Neves or Raúl Jiménez, but Traoré was included in the stadium barely two miles from where he grew up. And, boy, has he grown up: at times, he ran straight through opponents. Alongside him there was a first start for Daniel Podence, who provided passes for both Wolves’ goals.
Few Espanyol supporters believed and nor were they as concerned about this as they are about their fate at the foot of La Liga. A 6.55pm kick-off caught fans still at work, so there were as many seats empty as occupied. Those who came enjoyed it, including the 3,000 Wolves supporters. Sadly, though, a very small group were dragged out by security staff when they appeared to be trying to get into a VIP box.
For Espanyol, there was dignity in victory and warm applause at the end, giving them hope for their domestic battle. For Wolves, it is hard to know if the way they lost means anything, given the context in which it all happened.
Momentarily there had been a hint of life in the tie, Óscar Melendo and Pedrosa creating the opener. Calleri finished from close range, grabbing the ball from the net and racing back to the centre circle. There was even a chant of “Yes, we can!” but they couldn’t and it did not take long for Wolves to end it, neat footwork from Podence providing for Traoré. His first shot was blocked by Fernando Calero but he pushed past and finished.
With that away goal, Espanyol needed five. They got two and Wolves got another of their own, Doherty scoring from close range with 11 minutes left, only to concede again in the 91st. Wolves were beaten but they were singing in the stands. They had known they were through since the 22nd minute. They had known since last week, in fact.