A big test, under darkened skies and bright floodlights. These are often the best occasions a season can throw up, and in the scheme of the current npower Championship, tests probably don’t come much bigger than Wolves.
Relegated as a laughing stock last season after sacking a capable manager and clean forgetting to replace him, Wolves are in the process of starting afresh. Heralded at home but largely unheard of outside Scandianavia, Ståle Solbakken was appointed manager in the summer and has so far presided over a team struggling to hit top form, but still hovering with intent in the top half.
Wolves lost at Burnley at the weekend and so we can reach for the football soundbite of a manager looking for the right response from his team. City, of course, beat Barnsley without getting close to top form and so perhaps Steve Bruce also needs his side to step it up. If both succeed in doing so, we could be in for a cracking night.
Bruce, of course, was one phone call away from getting the Wolves job himself last season, apparently all set to shake hands on a deal only for the Wolves hierarchy, for reasons best known to themselves, to renege on the plan and give Mick McCarthy’s assistant Terry Connor a task for which he was patently unequipped. Their loss was, it seems now, very much our gain and while Wolves were in enough shtuck to suggest their Premier League fate was sealed already when the vacancy came up, nobody could doubt that they’d have come closer to survival had they kept their pledge to Bruce.
Their manager-that-never-was is now very much our manager-that-certainly-is and we’re all feeling the benefit. Four wins from five, fifth in the table and a squad that is fairly settled and adaptable depending on who is available and what the opposition brings.
Bruce has a decision or two to make about his defence. His son Alex hobbled off with a knee injury on Saturday and is doubtful (though tweeted to say he was fine yesterday). His absence would mean either a return to a flat back four, with Andy Dawson and Abdoulaye Faye coming in, or keeping the three centre backs and just restoring Faye. He is also, as we write, trying to get Robbie Brady back on a month’s loan from Manchester United as a more natural option as a left wing back, especially as Liam Rosenior has a muscle strain. Ahmed Elmohamady is also under observation after feeling a twinge, but is likely to stay in the team.
Solbakken is expected to ring the changes after the loss at Turf Moor, but one player not involved is ex-Tiger Stephen Hunt, who underwent surgery on an ongoing hip problem a month ago and is still recovering. They have another one of City’s old guard in their ranks, French defender Steven Mouyokolo, but he has fallen off the radar after spending last season on loan at Sochaux.
These two last faced one another in the 2009/10 Premier League season, when the pre-match story was about Wolves bidding incessantly to take Hunt to Molineux, and City resisting every bid (until the summer, at least). Hunt scored a penalty that day and Mouyokolo also played for the Tigers as the game ended 2-2. City’s recent record against Wolves at the Circle is fairly good, with that draw following two wins and a defeat in three straight Championship seasons – the defeat memorable for the footballing siblings of the Cort family facing one another and each scoring a goal.
The odds give 23/20 for a City win, with 23/10 applying to both the draw and a Wolves success. While the visitors are a club still licking a few wounds from last year, and are coming into the game with no wins in four, they are still a big prospect and this could be a memorable night in the context of the whole season. C’mon City.