Overdramatic football team nicknames never fail to make me smile. Ajax rather modestly call themselves “Son of the Gods”. De Graafschap, the team sitting in 6th place in the Dutch second division, are apparently the “Super Farmers”. And while I’m sure their players put up a fight on the pitch, I don’t think you’d see anything out of ‘300’ at Croft Park, home of Blyth Spartans.
Yet Tuesday sees the meeting of two sides whose nicknames, recently anyway, have been somewhat justified. Wolves, or should I say ‘os lobos’, have certainly been hunting in packs this season, as they sit proudly at the top of the Championship, whereas, although unofficially given to City, the Shark Team have been gobbling up each and every fish that swims with it, as Benjamin Mendy would say.
It becomes clear why I translate our opponents name into Portuguese when you have a quick look through their squad, or better still, their recent transfer dealings. In the last two windows, eleven Portuguese, Brazilian or Primeira Liga players have joined the club. ELEVEN. Add into that new manager Nuno Espírito Santo, and you, theoretically at least, have a complete Portuguese-speaking outfit.
Perhaps yet more surprising is the Midlands club affiliation with one of the biggest names in football. Super-agent Jorge Mendes, whose clients include Cristiano Ronaldo, David De Gea and Diego Costa, along with Otamendi, Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Mangala, is a good friend of the club’s Chinese owner. His “advisory” role in club recruitment not only led to his first ever client, Santo, replace Paul Lambert as manager at the start of this season, but also saw the arrivals of Hélder Costa, Diogo Jota and Rúben Neves, the latter of whom had been tipped for global superstardom not so long ago.
All of this means that Tuesday probably won’t be as straightforward as first thought. It’s clear that Guardiola will rotate after a gruelling recent schedule, so our opponents may smell blood. Even so, it’s easy to forget that nowadays, our so called second team consists of Bernardo Silva and İlkay Gündoğan.
One thing is for sure – the Wolves team that turn up to the Etihad on Tuesday will be almost unrecognisable. They, like us, have had quite an eventful few years since we sent them down with a 2-0 win at Molineux, six years ago.
When taking a look at their much-changed squad, however, we begin with a very familiar name. John Ruddy, formerly of Norwich of course, was once in pursuit of Joe Hart’s ‘England’s number one’ status. In front of him is likely to sit a back five, with the no-nonsense trio of Roderick Miranda, Connor Coady and captain Danny Batth supported by Scotsman Barry Douglas and Irishman Matt Doherty and wingback. They’ll get forward whenever they have the chance.
The midfield is a highly competitive area for Wolves, especially after their recent transfer exploits. Nonetheless, if they are to field their strongest squad tomorrow, I expect to see big Alfred N’Diaye, who you may remember scored the first of Hull City’s goals as they beat Liverpool last year, alongside Ruben Neves, the Portuguese poster boy. A Championship record fee of around £15million was coughed up for the 20-year-old. He’s no slouch.
If the Wolves are to bite, however, it’ll most likely be from the work of one of the three remaining players. First off, we have Brazilian striker Léo Bonatini, the Championship top scorer with seven goals and four assists. On loan from Saudi club Al-Hilal, the forward is physically resolute, with a keen eye for goal. He reminds me of Negredo, but not quite as “beastly”, shall we say. But, you can be sure that if he gets a chance, he will probably give it a right old whack. He’s good at that.
On the left is Diogo Jota, also the Championship top scorer with seven goals. Another new addition to the squad, the Portuguese winger is skilful and nimble, yet surprisingly powerful, with a fierce shot that can trouble keepers from distance. Alongside Bonatini, with confidence sky-high, they won’t be afraid to have a go at what we can expect to be a tinkered-with City defence.
Finally, on the right, we have Ivan Cavaleiro, another player from, you guessed it, Portugal. He’s filling in for the injured Hélder Costa, who may make the bench on Tuesday. Nonetheless, the winger is much taller and more physically imposing than his attacking counterparts, and will look to bustle his way around the full-backs and into the box. Not only that, but a pre-season screamer against Leicester City showed his predatory instincts, with a wonderful curling effort from 25 yards, beating Kasper Schmeichel for power and accuracy. A stand-in, but not one who we should take lightly.
Having said all this, I would single the danger-man out to be Diogo Jota. His infectious positivity could cause us problems if we give him too much space. Then again, a performance of the sort we have become accustomed to recently from Guardiola’s men should mean that his impact will be stifled – much like we managed to do with Marlos of Shakhtar Donetsk a few weeks prior.
So, the only question that remains now is, will Santo play a full-strength squad like the one I’ve outlined above? I’ve heard people suggest that he could make eleven changes for tomorrows clash in a clear statement of Championship prioritisation. If that does turn out to be the case, I apologise. I’ll stick with what I’ve gone for, but please don’t shout at me if I’m wrong.
Even if this isn’t the team that rocks up to the Eithad tomorrow, it’s probably worth familiarising yourselves with them. I can’t imagine that, with the financial backing they have and with probably the most powerful man in football looking out for them, that it will be too long before Wolverhampton Wanderers visit us as a Premier League side.