Barnsley are back in Sky Bet Championship action this weekend as we open our Oakwell schedule for 2018 against high-flying Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Hecky’s side will be looking for their fourth consecutive unbeaten league match, and a response to last weekend’s FA Cup exit at the hands of Millwall. Three points could potentially move the Reds above Reading into 18th, depending on their result in a ‘six-pointer’ clash with Hull City.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves provide the sternest of Championship tests, but the Reds battled them all the way in the reverse fixture at Molineux. Adam Jackson’s late equaliser looked to have grabbed a deserved point back in September, but for Alfred N’Diaye’s last-gasp winner to secure a 2-1 win for the Midlands men.
The two teams have had mixed fortunes against one another in recent years, but one lasting memory for Reds fans is last season’s rampant last 20 minutes at Molineux which saw us run out 4-0 winners.
Wolves are near-unstoppable at present, and one of the best footballing outfits the English second tier has seen in some time. The Black Country side stand 12 points clear at the summit of the Championship table, with both the best attack and defence in the division.
Nuno’s side have not lost in all competitions since October’s defeat at QPR, and have now won 10 and drawn two of their last 12 league encounters.
Whilst nothing is decided yet, they are the huge bookies’ favourites to be making the Championship trophy ribbons black and gold. The club last competed in the Premier League six years ago. Three seasons in the top-flight between 2009 and 2012 were followed by successive relegations, as Wolves competed in the third tier for the first time since 1989. Immediately taking the League One title, the club have invested impressively in their squad and are looking for an exciting Premier League return.
Wolves are still in the running for the FA Cup, having held Swansea City to a goalless draw at Molineux last weekend. They fell just short in the Carabao Cup 4th Round, beaten on penalties by Manchester City after bravely keeping Pep Guardiola’s side at bay for 120 minutes at the Etihad Stadium.
Nuno has implemented an electrifying and enjoyable style into his team. A clutch of very skilful players has been assembled, many of them foreign recruits who have settled seamlessly into the English league, particularly throughout the demanding winter schedule. Wolves are a very young side, which has supporters rubbing their hands for a potential new era with talented players blossoming at their club. The team play a direct game with some dangerous attacking play – the threat of Leo Bonatini and Ivan Cavaleiro is lethal, especially when supported by the spark of Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota. Wing-backs Matt Doherty and Barry Douglas link up very well down the flanks, with power outlets all over the pitch for the Championship’s highest scorers combined with an organised unit at the back who have conceded just 20 this campaign. When not affected by injury or suspension, captain Danny Batth is a real enforcer in the defence, with several other tall, physical centre-halves able to partner or deputise in a three-man back line.
Nuno now has seven of his fellow Portuguese countrymen at his disposal, and the best part of them have raised the bar for the quality of the football played in the Championship this season. Versatile midfielder Neves is an individual who has caught more than one eye this year, having been brought in from his manager’s former club FC Porto for a record £15.8million fee in the summer. Still only 20, he joins teammate Cavaleiro as a senior international for the European champions, and 21-year-old Jota could be joining them with a cap sooner rather than later. Combative midfield man Romain Saiss complements Neves, while Brazilian striker Bonatini has notched 12 league goals this season. Nuno’s wing-back system has allowed wide men Doherty and Douglas to excel. Wolves possess a brick wall of a back three, with options switching between Batth, Conor Coady, Ryan Bennett, Willy Boly and Roderick, protected between the sticks by the experienced John Ruddy. The squad contains plenty of depth, with substitutes N’Diaye and Bright Enobakhare on the scoresheet in the two sides’ last league meeting.
In The Dugout
Nuno Espirito Santo, known better by just his first name, signed a three-year contract to become head coach at Molineux in the summer of 2017. The Portuguese former goalkeeper has certainly put his own spin on the squad, fielding a number of so-far successful young players from his homeland and masterminding some entertaining football. His playing career ended in 2010 after his second spell at former European champions Porto, a club who he even scored for in 2003 after being allowed to take a penalty in a 7-0 cup win by Jose Mourinho. Nuno’s managerial debut came with Rio Ave, who he guided to their first ever European qualification in 2014 when they reached the final of both Portuguese domestic cups. From there he had the opportunities to manage Spanish giants Valencia and his supported club Porto, before making the switch to Wolverhampton in a move which left many fans ambitious. Alongside assistant Rui Pedro Silva, Nuno’s highest win rate yet has been in his current post.
Barnsley and Wolves have a very close record in matches between the sides. In a see-saw-like vein of form, Wolves have won the last two meetings with the Reds taking the two prior to that. With this weekend’s visitors looking their sharpest in some time, this is bound to be an entertaining match.