Wolves’ search for a new manager borders on the panic-stricken, with both Julen Lopetegui and an emotional return for Nuno Espírito Santo fallen by the wayside. Whoever succeeds Bruno Lage on a long-term basis must find a quick solution to a team that has lost its previous defensive solidity while simultaneously conceding cheap goals.
Crystal Palace’s phalanx of attacking talent, with Michael Olise excellent and Wilfried Zaha scoring their second kept knocking on the door of a team with sagging confidence, where confusion reigns. Wolves have talent, too, but have badly lost their way this season, and whatever the delay in finding a new manager, whoever he may be, this already looks likely to be a season-long fight against relegation.
Steve Davis ploughs on, “one game at a time”, as he put it pre-match. His team selection to follow Saturday’s welcome defeat of Nottingham Forest was interesting enough, Diego Costa starting barely three days after played 82 minutes.
The former Spain striker as Wolves’ workhorse after nine months out of the game, his last goal in English football in the 2017 FA Cup final, suggested the desperation of a team with four goals all season.
Costa plays as he always did, clattering around gamely, but in slower motion. His younger self would surely have done better with the early chance that came his way. Played through by Daniel Podence, there was a split second of hesitation and a scuffed shot gave Vicente Guaita chance to make a save.
Hugo Bueno, a 20-year-old from Wolves’ usual Iberian catchment area, this time Vigo, was meanwhile given a first start at left-back, a minute against Forest his only previous first-team experience. Nathan Collins was back in defense, his suspension after mid-air surgery on Jack Grealish spent after three matches.
Palace, coming off a lifeless weekend draw with Leicester, had made one change, bringing in Michael Oliseh for Jordan Ayew. They had lost just once since August but also won just once.
Their attack glimmers with talent and artistry but also inconsistency and their best early chance came when Cheick Doucouré, stepping up from anchoring midfield, crashed a shot into the right-hand post.
A defender, Marc Guéhi, from Olise’s dead ball, was the next to go close. Meanwhile, the likes of Wilfried Zaha, Eberechi Eze and Odsonne Édouard were being shackled, Nelson Semedo sticking limpet-like to Zaha. Wolves looked well-organized but a long-range potshot from Rúben Neves – well wide – looked as good as it might get in an attack starved of the ball.
Then came a counter to reveal why Bueno had been selected. His overlapping run and cross were those of a high-class veteran, and Adama Traoré’s header strikingly adept for someone who scored once last season for Wolves and none on loan at Barcelona.
“We’ve scored a goal,” sang the away fans and the home contingent began to grumble. They breathed a collective sigh of relief, too, when Neves drifted a free-kick off the post in the dying second of the half, and also boos for the referee, David Coote.
Soon after the start of the second half, they were in far better cheer. This time, Bueno showed his inexperience in allowing Olise to cross to the back post, where Semedo was yet more lax in allowing Eze to steal in and score. Wolves had been caught cold and next had to weather a storm of Palace attackers, their confidence re-upped, turning on the style in hunting down another goal.
Wolves’ danger remained on the counter, Daniel Podence going close and a triple substitution that brought on Gonçalo Guedes, João Moutinho and Joseph Hodge was Davis’s attempt to shore up midfield. It failed to pay off, as Palace continued to create the better chances. Not long after Édouard had narrowly missed with an overhead kick, the striker ran on to Eze’s pass and laid up Zaha to slot past José Sá.
Eventually, Costa could run no more, and left the field after one last skirmish in the 74th minute. He has at least added a focal point to Wolves, but not what they lack most. As Palace showed, goals are the best tonic of all.