The Championship is not a foregone conclusion yet. Aston Villa emphatically reminded Wolverhampton Wanderers of just that, as Nuno Espírito Santo’s side saw their lead at the summit reduced to only three points.
Goals by Albert Adomah, James Chester, Lewis Grabban and the substitute Birkir Bjarnason earned Villa a resounding victory inside a raucous Villa Park to puncture Wolves’ tilt towards the Premier League. With one win from their past five matches and 10 games to play, the worry for Wolves is whether the wheels come off altogether.
Some unusually lax defending, particularly at set-pieces, proved the catalyst behind Wolves’ heaviest defeat of the season. But for Steve Bruce, this was a landmark victory as his side ran in four crushing goals over their Midland neighbours. By full-time, after a comfortable and combative Villa performance, described by Chester as “night and day” compared to last season, the pre-match discourse surrounding Wolves’ financial clout and their relationship with the super-agent Jorge Mendes had long since evaporated. Sunday marks 114 consecutive days at the top for Wolves and, while “an almighty collapse‚” as Bruce put it, remains hard to envisage, they still have plenty of work to do to get over the line.
“We have to stay the same. At this moment the table does not mean anything,” said Santo, whose team host Reading and then Burton Albion next week. “The schedule is what is important. The home factor is very important – that is really what decides the schedule. We have to look at the next two games at Molineux.. On Tuesday we have to bounce back.”
Villa began brightly and their first meaningful foray into the Wolves half, when Adomah charged forward to earn a corner, garnered an early reward. Mile Jedinak caused panic in the Wolves defence after rising highest to meet Robert Snodgrass’s outswinging ball before Adomah stabbed home. Adomah danced as the Holte End erupted while Bruce swivelled on the touchline, punching the air. The joy, though, was short-lived. Moments after Matt Doherty forced John Terry to clear off the line, the Wolves right-back galloped down the flank, nutmegging Neil Taylor along the way, before sliding a teasing ball into the box. Chester’s attempt to cut it out with his leg forced a save from his goalkeeper, Sam Johnstone, but the rebound fell for Jota, the Atlético Madrid loanee – inevitably a Mendes client – to bundle home.
“They have got some very good players – how they are here is another question – but they had people who were in the Champions League last season,” Bruce said, after his team cut the gap to the league leaders down to seven points. “They have an array of talent, so to beat them so handsomely was fantastic from our boys. They are the ones to be shot at, they have got a lead, but it’s all to play for. Our duty is to try and chase.”
Ruben Neves returned from suspension to orchestrate the Wolves midfield alongside Alfred N’Diaye but a clumsy foul by the former allowed Villa to seize control. Snodgrass curled a free-kick towards the back post and Chester was on hand, free of company, to steer home his second goal in five days. Wolves were shell-shocked but the goalkeeper, John Ruddy, was picking the ball out of his net again four minutes later, when Grabban rattled home a third at the near post. Santo summoned Benik Afobe and Helder Costa but Villa went on to toast a memorable win, sealed by Bjarnason, who drilled home low beyond Ruddy.