Wolves are a long way from a one-man team, yet once again there was little doubt who would be the sole focus of attention once this quarter-final kicked off. Not Raúl Jiménez, rated by many as the best number nine in the Premier League. Not Rúben Neves or João Moutinho, the wily schemers at the heart of the Wolves midfield. No, wholly predictably, it was the only man on the field with lubrication on his bulging biceps that dominated discussion of the early stages.
Adama Traoré oils up his arms to deter opponents who would otherwise be left in his wake from trying to pull him back illegally. Traoré is so quick he leaves lots of defenders attempting to stop him by any means possible, and there had been some debate beforehand about his best starting position. Some felt he would be best deployed on the right, even if Sevilla possess an accomplished left-back in Real Madrid loanee Sergio Reguílon, all the better to supply Jiménez with crosses from the byline.
Nuno Espírito Santo decided to use him through the middle, perhaps aware that Sevilla would defend with an obligingly high line. Traoré began with a little cameo of his former right-winger self, darting down the right flank with only 30 seconds on the clock to send over a cross for Jiménez to bring a save from Yassine Bounou with his first touch of the ball, but it was what the former Barcelona player did 10 minutes later that justified his manager’s faith, or would have done had Jiménez been able to score from the penalty spot. Breaking from well inside his own half, Traoré set off on a scything run that took him all the way into the Sevilla penalty area, where he was brought down by an ankle tap from Diego Carlos in the act of preparing to shoot.
Given Traoré’s occasionally erratic finishing this seemed the best of all outcomes for the visitors, who by that stage had done enough to deserve an 11th minute lead, yet the normally reliable Jiménez waited for the goalkeeper to make the first move in an unconvincing run-up and was confounded when Bounou stood his ground. There was a suggestion the goalkeeper was slightly off his line when Jiménez struck the ball, yet it would only have been a measurement in millimetres, and the shot itself was well below the Mexican’s normal standard.
After the decisive inroads Traoré had made, an easily saved penalty was the last thing Wolves needed, especially as they have a good record of hanging on to early leads. And the let-off seemed to act as a spur to their opponents – suddenly there was less space behind the back line.
Suddenly Traoré was being surrounded by three players every time he saw the ball, which was less and less often because by the interval Sevilla were getting forward more than their opponents and taking a grip of the game.
It was time for Wolves to dig in, in other words, and they did so quite impressively, defending with discipline and organisation. Rui Patrício made a couple of scrambling saves in the first half, but for the most part the defensive screen kept him well protected until Youssef en-Nesyri toe-poked a shot at him after an hour. Jesús Navas did find space for Jordan at around the same stage of the game, but Leander Dendoncker was across quickly to cut out the danger from Lucas Ocampos in the middle. More worrying from a Wolves point of view was the complete lack of action at the other end. Bounou was a virtual spectator for a full hour following his penalty save. Without so much as a sniff of a chance to strike on the counter, Traoré was withdrawn 10 minutes from the end, the player that terrorised Manchester City earlier in the season finding only closed doors and dead ends to run into against more composed defenders.
That seemed to confirm a defence-dominated game was heading for extra time, though if Wolves were contemplating that possibility a couple of minutes too early they were caught out by quick-thinking from Sevilla’s best attackers, Suso and Éver Banega. The former forced a late corner, taken quickly to allow Banega to cross on the diagonal, and a perfect headed finish by Ocampos did the rest. Effectively Banega cut out the big men in the Wolves rearguard by inviting Ocampos to come short for the ball. Though it was a cruel ending for Wolves, long before the end there was only one side creating openings.