These Wolves belong in high-class company. Nuno Espírito Santo’s team climbed to fifth in the table thanks to Leander Dendoncker’s crisply struck goal here, closing to within four points of Chelsea in the chase for Champions League qualification. Aston Villa, meanwhile, remain in deep peril at the other end, in 19th position having played a game more than their rivals. Next on the agenda for them? Liverpool away and Manchester United at home.
Dean Smith spent much of the lockdown trying to mend Villa’s rickety defence and they have certainly looked more secure since the restart. But that improvement came at the expense of attacking menace and the chances of Villa grinding their way to survival never looked bright. So even if there were no fans present to demand boldness in this West Midlands derby, Smith opted for a theoretically more adventurous approach here, deploying two strikers and a midfield diamond with Jack Grealish at its apex. As a result, Villa’s default setting was not as deep as in their recent outings and they played slightly more of the game in the opposing half. But creativity was grievously lacking and penetration still looked beyond them.
Rui Patrício was not forced into a save until the 37th minute, when he stopped a testing low shot from the left-hand corner of the box by Grealish.
The goalkeeper would have had to surpass that feat just before the break if not for a superb sliding tackle by Jonny, who blocked a shot by Conor Hourihane after a perfect tee-up by Grealish.
Wolves, however, had come closer to opening the scoring before that despite VIlla’s defensive improvement. In the 19th minute Ørjan Nyland needed two attempts to stifle the danger after a near-post header by Raúl Jiménez following a clipped free-kick from the right by João Moutinho. Five minutes later Matt Doherty loped down the same side, used Diogo Jota as a decoy and darted into the box, riding Marvelous Nakamba’s tackle with the help of a favourable ricochet. Feeling his luck was in, Doherty chose not to eschew options in the centre and shot from a difficult angle. He blasted into the side-netting.
Too often this season Villa have been at their most vulnerable when seemingly out of harm’s way, with sudden individual mistakes a painful affliction. So it was not bizarre but not particularly surprising, in the 42nd minute, to see Nyland attempt to throw the ball to a teammate but instead fumbled it to Diogo Jota instead. Mercifully for Villa’s keeper, the forward’s first-time shot from 20 yard flew over the bar.
The first 15 minutes of the second half were notable only for their listlessness. On the plus side, there could hardly have been better scene-setting for the arrival of Adama Traoré, whose introduction on the hour promised a shift into turbo drive. Two minutes later, Wolves took the lead thanks to a rapid counterattack.
Traoré was inevitably involved, he and Jiménez combining on the left wing before the striker delivered a cross. Jonny received it and laid it off to Dendoncker at the edge of the area, leaving the Belgian to rasp a low shot into the bottom corner.
Dendoncker had an opportunity to double his tally five minutes later but shunted the ball wide of the back post after meeting a corner.
Villa were ominously blunt. Their striking duo, Keinan Davis and Mbawna Samatta, toiled in vain, getting no change out of Wolves’ defenders and paltry service from their teammates. The hosts did press back their visitors as the game wore on but never made them truly uncomfortable. Jonny made another important block in the 73rd minute to foil Grealish.
When Anwar El Ghazi, introduced in place of Davis, deposited an inviting cross to the back post in the 84th minute, no Villa player was on hand to take advantage. Thus Wolves have beaten Villa home and away in a top-fight season for the first time since 1962-63. They might not get a chance to do it again next season.