Wolves put one giant foot into the Europa League last-16 with a resounding 4-0 win at home to Espanyol on Thursday night.
A hat-trick from Diogo Jota and a superb Ruben Neves volley did the job for Nuno Espirito Santo’s men, who absolutely dominated their Spanish opponents in this first leg.
So, who were the winners and losers at Molineux?
Winner: Raul Jimenez
He’s already smashed the 20-goal mark this season, but there are far more reasons than that as to why Raul Jimenez is one of Nuno Espirito Santo’s most important players.
The Mexico international is regularly involved in Wolves’ build-up play and is just as adept at dropping into space to combine with his teammates as he is in the 18-yard box — this season alone, he’s registered nine assists across Premier League and Europa League play, one of which came here.
His whole repertoire was on show in this one, with Jimenez brilliantly flicking on Joao Moutinho’s cross to create the chance for the opening goal before slipping a wonderful pass into the path of Adama Traore, who really should have finished his one-on-one chance.
Furthermore, his persistent pressing forced a number of mistakes from Espanyol defenders, keeping them on tenterhooks throughout the evening.
Raul Jimenez won four aerial duels, played four key passes and provided an assist during the first half against Espanyol. #WolvesEspanyol
What a player he is for #Wolves
— Chris Smith (@CJSmith91) February 20, 2020
Whether it’s scoring goals, creating chances or defending from the front, Jimenez is absolutely vital to Wolves’ chances of success and undoubtedly one of the most complete centre-forwards on these shores right now.
Loser: Ander Iturraspe
The fact that Ander Iturraspe was only shown a yellow card for his stupid show of petulance toward Jota could actually make him a winner, but regardless of the colour of card shown to him, the midfielder is now suspended for the next leg.
Iturraspe put in a strong challenge on Jota shortly before half-time, which the Portuguese forward seemed to take issue with. Did Jota leave a leg in on Iturraspe? Perhaps. But the reaction of the Espanyol man was inexcusable, pushing his head into Jota with enough force to warrant a red card an almost every day of the week.
According to referee Tobias Stieler, who booked Moutinho for dissent once the malaise had died down, this was not one of those days and although Iturraspe is now suspended, it could and should have been much worse.
Winner: Ruben Neves
What. A. Goal.
We’re all well aware of Neves’ ability to strike a ball but since Wolves’ promotion to the top-flight, we haven’t quite seen him demonstrate it on such a regular basis.
On Thursday, though, just as Espanyol were beginning to establish a foothold in the game after half-time, the Portugal international delivered a thunderbolt to remind us all just what he’s capable of.
Oh Ruben Neves, behave yourself 🔥
Chest and volley from outside of the box, a stunning goal!
Molineux is rocking! 🐺 pic.twitter.com/o4l1rbgPXs
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) February 20, 2020
Traore once again beat his man down the right flank and delivered a cross to the far post, which was initially cleared. Unfortunately for Espanyol, it was cleared right into the path of Neves, who took the ball down with his chest and delivered a wondrous volley into goalkeeper Andres Prieto’s right-hand corner. That was Neves’ 12th Wolves goal from outside the penalty area, and he’s only scored 15 in total, with the other three coming from the penalty spot.
Off came the Molineux roof as Wolves took a giant step toward the Europa League last-16.
Loser: Andres Prieto
Back-up goalkeeper Andres Prieto was making just his second start of the season for Espanyol and my word, he was up against it.
Whether it was two deflected Jota goals or thunderbolts from the aforementioned forward and Neves, there was simply nothing Prieto could do about any of the four strikes which leaked past him here.
The main reason Prieto is a loser, though, is that, at times, it was as if his entire defence were happy to leave him stranded and alone in dealing with the Wolves onslaught. They lost possession, backed off in fear and looked totally inept throughout — Nuno Espirito Santo’s prematch suggestions that Espanyol are better than their 20th-place La Liga spot couldn’t have looked further from the truth on the evidence of this pathetic defensive display.
Condolences must go to Prieto for being the victim of the shower in front of him.
Winner: Diogo Jota
Diogo Jota hadn’t scored a single goal in eight games before Thursday’s meeting with Espanyol. In fact, the last time he found the net was his hat-trick against Besiktas in this competition back in December.
Fitting, then, that the Portuguese tyrant ended that drought with another Europa League hat-trick, and he really did so in some style.
Only three players have scored a hat-trick in back-to-back Europa League appearances:
⚽️⚽️⚽️ Klaas-Jan Huntelaar
⚽️⚽️⚽️ Edin Dzeko
⚽️⚽️⚽️ Diogo Jota 🆕
Not bad company to be in. pic.twitter.com/URvHkquC67
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 20, 2020
Each goal showcased Jota’s wide array of skills, with the first a poacher’s effort inside the six-yard box, the second a result of a clever run behind the Espanyol defence and the third a wonderful finish from outside the area after driving inside with the ball.
A masterful performance from Jota, who should use this hat-trick to fuel further goals during the season run-in.
Loser: Abelardo Fernández
Fair enough, Espanyol have the more pressing issue of La Liga survival to worry about, but Abelardo Fernández really needs to get a winning feeling coursing through his squad. A 4-0 thrashing on a Thursday night in Wolverhampton is not the way to do that.
Record signing Raul de Tomas was unavailable and Fernández made a host of changes for this one to keep his squad fresh but in the second half especially, Espanyol looked like a team completely devoid of confidence, doomed to fail in any competition.
Their attack was disjointed, their defence, well, we’re probably not allowed to use the words necessary to describe how they performed on Thursday.
The only silver lining is that with this tie effectively over, Fernández can rest even more players in the return leg with no pressure to take a result.
Winner: Adama Traore
Adama Traore is simply not human.
We’ve all seen, heard and read just how phenomenal the former Barcelona winger has been this season. Hell, he’s even been loosely linked with a return to the Nou Camp. But on Thursday, he really did give his former Derbi Barceloni rivals hell.
Adama Traoré's first-half by numbers vs. Espanyol:
100% pass accuracy
100% corner accuracy
100% tackles won
8/9 (EIGHT) take-ons completed
2 massive quads
He's not human. pic.twitter.com/BMLoX4grUJ
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 20, 2020
In the first half alone, Traore completed 100% of his passes and eight (eight!) of his nine attempted take-ons — he added another dribble to that tally before he was withdrawn in the second half.
Sure, his end product wasn’t quite there at times on Thursday, looking a little more like the 2018/19 version of Traore, but it was still his deep cross to the far post which forced the rebound for Neves’ thunderbolt.
Another superb performance from a player completely redefining himself.