So dominant were Wolves, so strong was their grip on this supposedly perilous game, Sheffield United probably began drafting their response long before Simon Moore received his marching orders during the closing stages.
George Baldock had certainly been briefed after audacious goals from Rúben Neves and Diogo Jota ensured the visitors became the latest victims of a club which, having been bought by a Chinese conglomerate, is rewriting the rules of Championship football.
But, although he stuck to the party line with such assiduousness you suspect he had learnt it by rote beforehand, it was impossible to argue with the United defender, or his manager for that matter, when they acknowledged Nuno Espírito Santo’s side had simply been too good, too clinical and are destined for the Premier League.
“The gaffer got us in the dressing room afterwards and his head was held really high,” Baldock said. “It’s February 3rd and it’s the first time we’ve had to stand in front of you guys (Press), anyone really, and admit we got battered. He was brilliant in there. He said: ‘Listen, that’s the first time we’ve been beaten by a better team.’ So for that to happen, for the first time, at this stage of the season, I think that’s pretty good.”
Neves’ goal, a looping long-range finish Moore was powerless to save, provided United with an ominous portent of what was to come.
After the midfielder, Wolves’ £15.8 million signing from Porto, had engineered the breakthrough, Jota provided the finishing touch to a move best described as ‘Playstation football’.
Ivan Cavaleiro completed the scoring with a deflected free-kick after Moore had been dismissed for poleaxing Jota during the closing stages.
It was a clumsy and, as manager Chris Wilder later acknowledged, unnecessary challenge which means youngster Jake Eastwood will now start Saturday’s fixture with Leeds.
That game, against opponents also hit by suspension, marks the start of a six-game run both Baldock and Wilder believe will define eighth-placed United’s season.
“We’ve got to bounce back quickly because we’ve got a massive game coming up, not only for us but also for the fans,” Baldock said. “ It’s given us extra motivation, to be honest. We’re in a great position, 16 matches left and it’s all to play for. We can’t dwell on this for too long even though, I can tell you, it’s hurting everyone in there.”
SKILL AND SPENDING POWER
Round 30 of this season’s Championship proved a chastening experience for a United squad who, after beating Wolves at Bramall Lane five months ago, have developed a taste for ruining stellar reputations since being promoted from League One. Speaking beforehand, Wilder had compared Wolves to Manchester City, given the yawning chasm between themselves and the rest of the division in terms of points and spending power.
While access to Fosun International’s billions is the driving force behind Espírito Santo’s team, the Portuguese has spent the money wisely, with a £12m agreement to sign on-loan Jota recently brokered with Atlético Madrid.
“We beat them at Bramall Lane so we went into the game thinking we would win,” Baldock said. “It just didn’t happen, the quality didn’t shine through. We didn’t really test the keeper and they’ve hit a couple of worldies. But we thought we were going to win because that’s the mentality of the group.”
“We tried not to respect them too much but they are really good,” he added. “We aspire to be like that. We’ll shake their hands afterwards but we’re not in awe of them or anything like that. They’re by far the best team we’ve played and I think they’ll win the league. However much money you spend, you’ve still got to make it gel.”
NOT THEIR BEST
Despite the attempts to portray the trip to Molineux as a free hit, United will be hurting. Because, as Baldock let slip, they fell short of their usual high standards.
There was no shortage of effort or, even as the contest slipped away from them, determination to establish some sort of foothold.
But while Wolves were excellent both in and out of possession, Wilder’s men appeared laboured and subdued, despite the best efforts of Ricky Holmes on his full debut for the club following a transfer from Charlton.
There were too many sideways passes and, as United attempted to fathom a way through the hosts’ rearguard, precious few moments of real innovation.
“We stood by each other and ran ourselves into the ground for one another,” Baldock continued.
“The quality just wasn’t there. But Wolves are a top side, they’re going to be playing Premier League football next season.
“Hopefully we can join them. We’ve had some great days and I reckon we’ve got a few more in us.
“We were unlucky against another top side, Aston Villa, before this.”
United, who enjoyed the better of their tussle with Villa before succumbing to Robert Snodgrass’ memorable finish, received another reminder about the quality money can buy when Neves’ long-range effort kissed the crossbar before nestling in the back of the net.
The midfielder was afforded too much time and space on the edge of the box but the trajectory of the shot and precision with which it was delivered rendered attempts to apportion blame futile.
“All I can say is sorry to the fans,” Baldock said. “Because they were better than us today.”