In some regards the ripples of that barmy and – even nearly six months on – barely believable final 15 minutes, which saw Wolves snatch the most improbable of wins from the jaws of what seemed certain defeat, are still being felt.
For Bruno Lage, the 3-2 victory proved to be a landmark moment and a launchpad in a campaign which, some recent disappointments aside, has far exceeded expectations.
By contrast, there are occasions even now when you wonder whether Villa are fully recovered. Certainly, they did not get over the shock in time to save Dean Smith. A little over three weeks and three defeats later, his three-year reign as head coach came to an abrupt finish. Successor Steven Gerrard was able to halt the freefall but a season which sparkled with promise in the early weeks of autumn has become one of consolidation.
That was what many expected Wolves to be facing, yet with seven weeks of the campaign to go they remain firmly in the race for European football. It hasn’t always been perfect but you can’t argue with results, or a table which shows them 10 points ahead of their rivals.
The crucial difference between the teams could be seen in the frantic finale at Villa Park. Villa have outspent Wolves by some distance in recent transfer windows but a mental fragility remains. October’s derby was, admittedly, an extreme example – yet there have been other occasions when they have been beaten in matches where at least a draw should have been claimed. With nine matches remaining, Villa have already lost as many times as they did in the whole of last season. Wolves have lost 12 matches themselves but have generally been more dependable, more obdurate. Their implosion against Leeds prior to the international break was all the more shocking for it.
That result dented European aspirations, while the injury to Ruben Neves further soured both mood and confidence, at least among supporters. Shorn of his best player, the next few weeks promise to be particularly testing for Lage but his team’s success this term has been no fluke. Deservedly in the mix to be the Premier League’s manager of the season to this point, you wouldn’t bet against him. Still, in terms of the long-term future, this feels like a big few weeks.
Villa will arrive at Molineux tomorrow looking for revenge and determined to play spoiler to their rivals’ aspirations. In the not too distant future, they want to be challenging for Europe themselves and what is fascinating for us observers is the difference in approach taken by two clubs both with designs of cracking English football’s elite.
Villa owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens have invested hugely in the playing squad and continue to do so, the January captures of Lucas Digne and Philippe Coutinho evidence, Gerrard claimed at the time, of a desire to win now rather than later.
Wolves also splashed the cash during the early years of Fosun’s ownership, clocking up a net spend on transfers of £169million between 2018 and 2020. Since then, however, the net spend on fees is only £15m and, as technical director Scott Sellars outlined to the Express & Star last week, the financial reality means the club must continue to cut their cloth accordingly.
Though the expectation is Villa cannot continue to spend at the rate they have, Gerrard will undoubtedly head into the summer with a considerably larger transfer kitty than Lage. At some point in the future, you suspect the sheer rate of investment will see them jump ahead . Football is a sport where money typically talks in the end, though there are never any guarantees, as this season has proved.
While recent public comments by Sellars and Jeff Shi have sometimes felt like an exercise in expectation management, Villa have been less worried about raising expectations. It is less the public comments of Gerrard and chief executive Christian Purslow than the players. Digne this week backed the club to sign players who will help them break into the top seven, while goalkeeper Emi Martinez spoke of winning the Champions League after signing a new deal in January. Highly fanciful though it may sound, it does rather underline the ambition.
Enough buzz remains among supporters too. A study published by the Mail on Sunday this week found Sawiris and Edens have a 98 per cent approval rating from fans, the third highest in the Premier League behind Brentford and Leeds. Fosun’s approval rating was still strong, at just over 92 per cent, yet the fact it is lower perhaps says more about fan concerns of what might come next after a season when Wolves, in the battle to challenge the Premier League’s top dogs, have been one step ahead of their Midlands rivals .