Not many Wolves players emerged from a dispiriting defeat to Ipswich with their positions enhanced.
Yet one Portuguese player, who spent the evening 150 miles away from Portman Road as the club crashed embarrassingly out of the EFL Cup in a 3-2 defeat, will have only benefitted. Jose Sa has not started the Premier League season especially well, with a starting place that once seemed rock solid called increasingly into question.
After events in Suffolk, the Portugal goalkeeper can rest a good deal easier. His status as Wolves’ No 1 is safe for the immediate future.
Since arriving from Bristol City in a January transfer, Dan Bentley has proved a popular, influential member of the Wolves squad. The former Southend and Brentford man has emerged as one of the senior figures in the dressing room; the leadership qualities that earned him club-captain status at his previous club being harnessed first by Julen Lopetegui and now Gary O’Neil.
Last night, though, the 30-year-old got a chance to push his claims for the position he really wants — Wolves No 1. It could not have gone much worse. From 2-0 up and seemingly cruising into the last 16, Wolves capitulated to lose 3-2 to in-form Ipswich. Bentley was directly culpable for the hosts’ equaliser and could potentially have done more to prevent the Championship side’s other goals.
As auditions for ‘leading man’ go, it was akin to falling over the scenery.
Bentley is clearly talented and a character who is valued hugely behind the scenes at Molineux, yet his failure to grasp his chance means that, barring an injury or suspension, he will almost certain have to wait until the third round of the FA Cup in early January for another chance.
It is no secret Wolves were considering their options in goal for much of the summer, with Sa having followed up a stellar debut season in 2021-22 with a much more erratic campaign last season.
Had former boss Julen Lopetegui — a goalkeeper himself in his playing days — been able to find a more reliable No 1 within his limited budget there is little doubt he would have pursued the signing and potentially pushed Sa aside.
The goalkeeping department has been in flux since the departure of the influential John Ruddy last summer. Matija Sarkic was given a chance to push Sa for his place until Lopetegui arrived and decided the Montenegro international was not a player he wanted.
Bentley arrived and was given a chance to display his talents at the end of last season, once Wolves’ survival in the Premier League had been confirmed. He performed well at Manchester United but followed it up with a tentative display at home to Everton.
That left Sa as the clear choice to start the season as No 1 and, while some of his distribution this season has been rash, the former Olympiakos man will almost certainly return to the team to face Manchester City on Saturday
O’Neil admitted that ‘a lot of things need fixing’ after the game. He added: “People will say, ‘Oh, they did fine last year’, but the truth is they got 41 points last year and we made an £80million profit on players in the summer. We’re £80m short of where we were last year.
“Every weekend is not going to be rosy; we’re going to suffer for some tough weekends and we’re going to need to crack on and go again.”
It was not just Bentley who was proving O’Neil’s point.
Striker Sasa Kalajdzic, who has seen a massive momentum build within the Wolves fanbase for his inclusion in the Premier League side in recent weeks, started positively with a fine assist for Hwang Hee-chan’s second opening goal and enjoyed several other solid touches early on.
But that soon gave way to a messy display that did little to prove the likeable Austrian is ready either technically or physically (after missing all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament) to become Wolves’ senior No 9 yet.
Santiago Bueno’s attempts to establish himself as a genuine challenger to Craig Dawson or Max Kilman at centre-back were undermined by some flat-footed moments that suggested the Uruguay international is short of the physical shape required for the rigours of the Premier League.
In fact, in a team that included 11 changes from the team that started in the league at Luton, only Boubacar Traore from outside the regular league line-up did his chances of promotion any good. With Jean-Ricner Bellegarde suspended for two more games, the Malian must now be favourite to take his place.
O’Neil could have done with more of his understudies stepping up to give him some difficult decisions ahead of City’s arrival at Molineux on Saturday. While the 40-year-old head coach is unlikely to face any pressure from inside the club any time soon, less than two months after signing a three-year contract, his position is already being questioned by a section of supporters.
As he stressed after the game, he needs more time to implement his ideas. He would also like more options.
But, starting in goal, last night left his starting line-up for the weekend pretty much picking itself.
(Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)