According to the current Premier League orthodoxy, the Vandals are playing the Visigoths at Molineux this afternoon. Wolverhampton Wanderers and Stoke City don’t fit with the marketing profile of the division. These are two clubs that upset people aesthetically. They’re not as glamorous as some would like, and they don’t play football in the way that those that seem to care about this sort of thing are concerned, and neither do they just sit back and accept their inevitable fate. Stoke City have managed an FA Cup final appearance and have held their own in the Europa League so far this season, whilst Wolves survived the cut by the skin of their teeth last season and, despite a dismal run of form during the autumn, have shown signs of life again in recent weeks.
With Christmas eight days away, there are empty seats at Molineux this afternoon – even some of the most fanatical of football supporters have families and friends to buy presents for, after all. In addition to this, we have the arguably less forgivable sight of a dozen or so home supporters dressed as Santa Claus. In an era during which stewards and the police seem more than happy to eject people from football grounds for breathing in the wrong direction, would it be too much to ask to also eject those that turn up in fancy dress? Perhaps the authorities take the viewpoint that television cameras zooming in upon them close to tears when something goes wrong is sufficient punishment in itself.
Occasional viewers of the Premier League might been surprised not to see these two sides not digging themselves into trenches and hurling stinkbombs at each other. Instead, the first half is quite attractive, ebbing and flowing from one end of the pitch to the other, with Wolves having the better of the first twenty-five minutes before Stoke come back into the match, giving the Wolves manager Mick McCarthy good reason to start bellowing at his players in the run-up to half-time. It’s Wolves that take the lead, though, with a penalty kick after seventeen minutes. Jonathan Woodgate, who seems to perpetually carry a facial expression which suggests that something either just has or is just about to go terribly wrong in his life, has already been booked when he trips Matt Jarvis inside the penalty area. Stephen Hunt converts the penalty kick, and it’s no less than this effervescent Wolves performance deserves. They have a great chance to double their lead, too, when Hunt manages to find himself a little space on the left hand side of the penalty area. The angle, however, is a little too narrow and his shot is blocked by the Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen. Stoke, however, do finally start to warm up a little and the final ten minutes of the half see them finally assert themselves. While there are precious few clear chances for them, it rather feels as if half-time can’t quite come soon enough for Wolves.
The opening stages of the second half are scrappy and punctuated by two more quick yellow cards, and Stephen Hunt brings a fine save from Sorensen, but thirteen minutes in Stoke are level, albeit thanks to a large dollop of good luck. A free-kick from thirty-five yards out is rolled to Robert Huth, and his shot takes a huge deflection off Kevin Doyle on the end of the Wolves wall, completely wrong-foots Carl Hennessy and flies into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal. This goal opens the game up a little, and it is Stoke that benefit from this. With just over twenty minutes left to play, they are take the lead when a deep cross from the left is bundled over the line by the undisputed king of bundling the ball over the line at the far post, Peter Crouch.
It is with the second Stoke City goal that Wolves’ problems start to become more apparent. Their direct style of play starts to look increasingly one-dimensional as the second half wears on and they pressurise without often looking as if they are going to actually threaten Sorensen’s goal. Stoke seem happy enough to sit back and allow the home side to come at them and, while the home crowd still believes enough to continue to exhort the Wolves players forward, today is not going to be their day. During the second half this afternoon, we have witnessed a microcosm of their problems so far this season. Too one-dimensional and too predictable, they need to break out of this tactical straitjacket if they are to avoid another winter of discontent.
Stoke City, meanwhile, remain the pantomime villains of the Premier League. Yet they are effective on relatively limited resources, and this afternoon’s win has opened up a little but of a cushion between themselves and Norwich City in ninth place in the table. With a Europa League match against Valencia to look forward to, their slightly faltering start to the season long forgotten and the chase now on to break into the top seven in the Premier League, it seems unlikely that their supporters will care too much for those that would seek to continue to deride them. With four straight wins now in the Premier League, they seem likely to spend 2012 continuing their recent tradition of upsetting the apple-cart at every given opportunity.
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