“We’re all looking to the new season with renewed vigour, confidence and enthusiasm,” stated Jez Moxey in his pre match notes.
Though the weather was muggy and dense, that felling of freshness and optimism was reflected in the crowd that made their way into the Molineux to watch Jackett’s new look team face a stern test, a top ten La Liga side, in the form of Real Betis. Managed by the former Madrid academy member, Pepe Mel, the team have progressed ever since his appointment in the summer of 2010. Mel got the team promoted at the first time of asking and has not looked back since, with the Verdiblancos qualifying for the Europa League last season via a 7th placed finish.
During this summer Betis have lost some key players to other clubs, most notably their influential playmaker, Benat, who took the opportunity to join Diego Simeone at Athletico Madrid. Other departures include two players leaving southern Spain to sign for Swansea City, Jose Canas and Alejandro Pozuelo have both signed for the Welsh club. With this in mind Betis, even though their budget is certainly the size of a shoestring, have some talented players. New signing Joan Verdu will be expected to burden the play making duties and provide more goals from the depleted midfield area. Alvaro Vadillo is another one of those Spanish wonder kids, aged just eighteen he has been with Betis since he was a boy and has slowly worked his way up through the ranks and is now a key member of Mel’s first team.
Betis had played not twenty-four hours before, up in Lancashire, against Bolton Wanderers. They comfortably saw them off 2-0. Wolves were expecting a tough test from a well-drilled Betis team. With this result in mind Betis’ team sheet read as Sara in goal, Matilla, Sanchez, Villar, Florido, Lopez, B. Rodriguez, Steinhofer, Gerard, Figueras and Martinez.
Kenny Jacket’s new look Wolves side have had a relatively successful preseason, with three 2-1 wins and a 2-2 draw, things were looking good and, from the outside looking in, the team seem to be gelling well ahead of what will be a tough season. Jackett has mixed things up over the past four games and yesterday’s game gave the fans the clearest indication yet of the team that will start against Preston in a week’s time. In goal was Carl Ikeme, the back four consisted of new signing Sam Ricketts, making his home debut, the centre back partnership of Stearman and Batth lined up once again with the young but extremely mature Matt Doherty at right back. At the core of the five man midfield was a triangle of central midfielders, David Davis and Lee Evans were at the base, with David Edwards playing just a bit in front of those two, given room to run at defenders. Bjorn Sigurdarson and Bakary Sako occupied the wing positions and Leigh Griffiths was chosen as the lone striker.
As Andre Marriner kicked the game off, Wolves did all the early running, with Bjorn Sigurdarson setting the pace of the game with a deflected shot. Within minutes it was clear to see that this was a completely different Wolves side, they looked calm, composed and assured of what they were doing. They looked comfortably on the ball and did not look under pressure. The players looked fresh and had an enormous amount of energy about them, with the two wingers more than happy to track back at all times, something that has not been seen at the Molineux in a fairly long while.
Wolves got their reward for all this hard work within five minutes, Danny Batth flicked a corner, from Leigh Griffiths, his flick on was met by the head of Richard Stearman who made no mistake and nodded the ball in from six yards. The Stan Cullis stand jumped up in delight, happy to see a player who was, a year go, cast out by the old regime but has now risen through to be a key player in Jackett’s revival.
Wolves’ good work continued as Betis looked leggy and weary, not expecting this amount of energy and hard work. A ball in from Bakary Sako was headed just over, then soon after, Richard Stearman strode forward with the ball at his feet, similar to the game against West Brom only this time he did not fall on his arse and played a, what can only be described as Xavi-esque, through ball to the feet of Leigh Griffiths only for the Scottish striker to be marginally offside.
Betis’ first chance came when the wonderfully named Cedrick, cut in from the left and curled a tame shot, straight at the chest of the confident Carl Ikeme. Betis began to work there way back into the game, they got their prize on fifteen minutes when the impressive Salva Sevilla collected a ball from Cedrick and curled a delightful shot into the top right hand corner, eluding the outstretched Carl Ikeme.
Only in a friendly would an opposition goal get a smattering of applause from the home fans. In all honesty, the goal deserved it, a moment of real quality from the man from southern Spain. A few cheers were heard in the Billy Wright stand from the extremely dedicated and extremely happy, Betis supporters as Ikeme picked the ball out the net.
Betis continued advancing forward, shots were being blocked left, right and centre from the committed centre backs. There was an air of ‘we are going to do absolutely everything to stop you from scoring’ about the defence as Betis plugged away. Stearman and Batth putting their bodies on the line, to block shots, make tackles and clear the ball.
Wolves were looking to move up the pitch as one, shouts of “Get out, get out” bellowed from the confident Richard Stearman. A Kenny Jackett Wolves side look to get out of their own eighteen-year box as quickly as possible, their ability to counter attack, at times, looked frightening. Wolves looked to attack, they played with a confident high line and were not content with sitting on their laurels, they wanted to score another. The one thing Wolves have got going for them is goals, there a players from all areas who can chip in with goals. Sako, Griffiths, Edwards, Sigurdarson all possess the ability to finish and under Jackett this looked to have been nurtured, harnessed and used in a way that gets the crowd excited about watching their team again.
Wolves withstood the Betis pressure after blocking some incisive through balls, another good chance came from Sako, he ran down the left hand side and cut in to deliver a low shot that went inches past Sara’ left hand side.
The first half was almost at a close when the all action goal scorer, Salva Sevilla, hit a rasping drive that was palmed away by Ikeme. The ensuing goalmouth scramble had some of the crowd’s hearts in their mouth. The defence duly dispatched the ball up the field at the first given opportunity. Despite the entire hullabaloo that was going in Wolves eighteen-yard box, Stearman and Batth managed to stay composed, they were committed and focused on nothing else. That ball was not going into the net.
The second half began, a quiet first ten minutes was interrupted when Sigurdarson’s flick on was met by Leigh Griffiths, whose well timed run kept him on side, one on one with the keeper, he struck an instinctive strike right past Sara and in. This drew great applause, Griffiths looked so composed and calm as the ball came over. To have the awareness to spot Sigurdarson’s pass and then have the ability to strike it with such venom was encouraging in this early stage of his Wolves career.
His celebration, a nod of appreciation for the applauding Wolves fans, signaled intent. Griffiths, because of Jackett, knows he is the main man this season. Jackett has put an arm around him and told him that he is his key player this season. Giving Griffiths the number nine shirt is symbolic also and will give him a huge amount of confidence going into the season. This confidence was shown yesterday as Griffiths darted all across the Betis back four. It was extremely hard to mark him, he would drag defenders all over the place with his intelligence and speed.
Wolves like in the first half, continued applying pressure, a free kick sailed just inches over from Leigh Griffiths. Again, showing his versatility as a player at such a young age. The resulting goal kick was taken and Betis broke at speed and a defensive error left Cedrick one on one to slot home past Carl Ikeme. The goal was a bit annoying to concede, the team was not sharp enough, and they did not react to Cedrick’s pace. He did show great composure however, as the imposing Ikeme bore down on him.
Wolves had a great chance to take the lead, Sako’s sumptuous cross-field ball landed at the feet of Matt Doherty who’s cross-cum-shot went inches wide. Doherty showed great intent, he drove forward at the full back. Doherty brimmed with confidence when he got forward, he looked like an experienced modern full back at times.
Unfortunately, Betis took the lead through Matilla who picked up yet another Betis through ball and slotted through the legs of Ikeme, this would be his last action of today’s game. Betis’ third goal prompted both Mel and Jackett to change their teams up a bit, Mel brought on Sergio, Nosa and Molina. Whilst, Kenny Jackett took off four players, Ricketts, Davis, Griffiths and Ikeme all departed and made way for Foley, Elokobi, Cassidy and Hennessey.
They came onto warm applause and in some cases, certainly my own, awe. Awe at the size of George’s chest, it has been nearly a year since Elokobi last played at Molineux and it appears he has spent rather a lot of time in his local gym ‘pumping iron’, anyway I digress.
After Kevin Foley’s cushioned header was saved, both managers made more changes, the visitors brought on Garcia and Juanfran whilst the young Liam McAlinden was brought on for Dave Edwards. Sako, with a few minutes left displayed some raw pace as he beat two of the Betis defenders and burst into the eighteen-yard box and thundered the ball straight into Sara’s groin area. A lot of heavy breathing ensued as the rather shocked and bewildered Betis keeper tried to recover after being hit in such a delicate area. The last changes of the day came as Forde and Price entered the fray and replaced Sigurdarson and Evans.
Evans looked composed next to David Davis and it is clear to see that a partnership will be struck up between them two. Price looked mature and dealt with Betis’ midfielders extremely well, his imposing frame gave him an advantage in the tackle and he matched the ability to tackle with an impressive range of short and long passes. He is not as mobile as Davis but he is reliable, a stalwart in the midfield. He will get the ball and give it, simple. No messing around from him. In a way, Evans is symbolic of the way Jackett likes to play, in an honest, simple fashion that does not try to be something it is not.
Wolves pushed for an equaliser with minutes to go, McAlinden poked the ball through the Betis defenders legs, he squared the ball to Cassidy whose shot was saved, quite wonderfully, by the now fully recovered Betis keeper. The last chance of the game came when Forde’s cross was collected by Matt Doherty, he managed to get the ball from under his feet, his shot was tame and was saved comfortably, however.
Marriner blew the whistle and the players went off to a standing ovation from the 7,000 Wolves fans that were pleased to see a new look side take to the stage. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, Wolves, with one striker, looked a little bit blunt when the ball was over the top. When the ball was played on the deck, the attacking players looked a lot more effective, as they were not trying to claw for high balls all the time. The through balls and weighted passes did not look polished, Wolves were offside numerous times, but given time this will be ironed out.
What must be praised is the amount of academy players that were in the first eleven. Wolves started the game with five academy players, with a further five coming on throughout the game. You do not see that in football very often, that is why I would not be overly disappointed if we did not sign anyone. With seven players let go and Doyle, O’Hara and Sako expected to leave very soon, the club have to cut the fat from an extremely bloated squad, that process is well underway. With the promotion of players from the development squad, Wolves are more than capable of doing relatively well with the current squad. A winger and a striker would be excellent but if this were not achieved, it would not be the end of the world.
The result yesterday was not important, it would have been nice to win but as we all know, pre season friendlies are just about getting match fit after months off. The team looked, sharp, assured and confident yesterday, the first eleven had several leaders that will marshal and make sure the young players are kept under control, which can only bode well for the turbulent nine months we have in store.