Wolves’ first major European campaign for nearly four decades will not finish any time soon, as Nuno Espírito Santo’s team earned a place in Friday’s draw for the Europa League group stages thanks to an accomplished victory over Torino.
Goals by Raúl Jiménez and Leander Dendoncker either side of a strike by Andrea Belotti gave the Premier League side a home victory to go with last week’s win in Italy, completing an impressive aggregate triumph.
This was Wolves’ ninth match in 36 days since they kicked off their season at the end of July but no one had Molineux was grumbling about a heavy workload. Wolves have embraced the Europa League, treating it as a welcome challenge and adventure rather than a burden to be scorned.
It was just as well, because the play-off pairings were unkind to them, with Torino being one of the strongest opponents they could have been pitted against. Wolves were superior to the Serie A side in the first leg and returned with a deserved lead but they knew this tie was far from finished. After trips to Belfast, Yerevan and Turin already, they had no intention of falling short of a new landmark: the group stages.
Nuno’s team selection reflected the high stakes. João Moutinho took his usual place in midfield – the 32-year-old has started every game so far this season – as Wolves began with almost the same lineup that returned from Italy with a 3-2 lead. The only alteration brought Jonny Otto back in at left wing-back in place of Rúben Vinagre, whose foul in the first leg led to Andrea Belotti scoring a late penalty that kept Torino’s qualification hopes alive.
Belotti was the player who caused most trouble to Wolves in Italy so it was a boost to Turin that the striker was declared fit enough to start despite suffering a knock during domestic action last weekend. Wolves would need to watch him and not only him because Walter Mazzari’s men started with a brisk menace that suggested they fancied their chances of becoming the first visitors since January to win at Molineux.
They would surely have scored in the ninth minute if Daniele Beseilli’s free-kick had not been fractionally too high for Lorenzo De Silvestri, who came painfully close to turning it into the net at the back post.
Playing in the same 3-5-2 formation to the hosts, Torino took most of the early initiatives, pressing energetically and looking to unhinge Wolves with zippy passing and movement. Wolves held firm for the most part, though they got a fright in the 16th minute when a headed clearance by Conor Coady fell to Tomas Rincon at the edge of the area. The Venezuelan’s volley whizzed wide.
It was 24 minutes before Wolves rattled the visitors thanks to the pure speed and directness of Adama Traoré, who raced straight through the Italians’ defence from half-way before Salvatore Sirigu batted away his powerful shot from 10 yards. Wolves seemed to take heart from that, while Torino grew even more wary of Traore, whose progression from erratic winger to consistently brilliant wing-back has been one of the most thrilling features of Wolves’ season so far.
It did not take him long to underline that point. On the half-hour he spread panic amid the opposing defence again, teasing Temitayo Aina and Sasa Lukic down the right before splitting them with a perfect cross to Jiménez, who nipped in front of two defenders at the near post to produce a finish that the buildup deserved. A full Molineux under the floodlights is always a picture, but that goal added a little more beauty.
It did not flatten Torino, however. Within minutes Rui Patríco had to act sharply to save a downward header by Simone Zaza.
That was as close as Torino came in the first half. By the break Wolves looked to have established control, albeit not as much as a referee who awarded free-kicks for even the slightest infringements.
Five minutes into the second period, however, Patrício had to stretch again, this time to swat away a free-kick by Beselli. That was merely a warning: in the 56th minute Beselli whipped in another free-kick from the left and this time Belotti darted into its path and flicked a header into the net from six yards.
The comeback was on. And then it was off. Within 55 seconds Wolves had restored their lead, Diogo Jota forcing a save from Sirigu before Dendonker guided the rebound into the net via a post.
On the sidelines a delighted Nuno hugged his coaching staff. After Friday’s draw they can look forward to yet more exciting duels, while no opponent will relish a trip to Molineux.