SHEFFIELD Wednesday’s head coach Carlos Carvalhal is perhaps ruing his spontaneous reaction in the wake of a dispiriting defeat at Norwich City last week that Friday night’s game with Wolverhampton Wanderers was a ‘must-win’ fixture.
Whether Carvalhal meant must-win for his future, as some took it to mean, or simply that the Owls needed to start claiming victories quickly, as he later claimed, it placed undue pressure on him in an already precarious situation.
Because for all the endeavour his side showed against the Championship’s leaders, and the sense of injustice they may feel about the concession of the game’s only goal, the simple fact is this was another defeat for the Owls. The statistics make for grim reading; two straight defeats, no win in six, only two wins in 11 games and now 24 points adrift of Wolves and still 10 shy of the play-off places having played a game more than their rivals.
For a side that has spent much of the last two seasons in the top six, this is simply not good enough and adds up to increased pressure on the Portuguese head coach.
He watched this latest defeat from the stands as he served a one-match touchline ban dating back to the last home game, when Hull City pinched a point deep into stoppage-time.
While that goal could not save Leonid Slutsky’s job over in Hull, what Ruben Neves’s delightful strike means for the future of the Wolves midfielder’s compatriot is as yet unclear.
Carvalhal wants to stay to finish the three-year job he started in the summer of 2015, but how much longer can the frustration go on, how much further away from the play-off spots can the Owls fall?
Carvalhal, who launched a passionate defence of his credentials in the pre-match press conference, will no doubt play on the perceived injustice that Jacob Butterfield won the ball from Ivan Cavaleiro last night and did not foul him, as referee Darren Bond felt, in the lead up to Neves’s goal.
He will also point to the injury list – already including Fernando Forestieri and Kieran Lee – that numbered nine first-team players by kick-off with mainstays Kieren Westwood and Barry Bannan absent with groin injuries.
Even the strength of the opposition is a mitigating factor –table-topping Wolves claimed a fourth straight away win – but that will sate none of the critics.
Wednesday should have been ahead before Neves struck, Reach blazing over after the industrious Liam Palmer had picked out Jordan Rhodes who produced a neat lay-off.
Wolves were content to play on the break, comfortable in the knowledge that their many playmakers had the ability to unlock the Owls’ defence.
So it proved on 34 minutes, though Wednesday will argue the free-kick that led to the goal – Butterfield challenging Cavaleiro – should never have been given.
Nevertheless, there was still defending to do and the Owls were unable to get a head on Cavaleiro’s free-kick, Wolves defender Willy Boly diving forward to flick it backwards into the path of Neves on the edge of the area.
Whether Boly meant it or not, the finish was a beauty, Neves meeting the ball first time with a crisp side-footed strike that curled past Wildsmith.
Wednesday continued to probe in the second half, Reach carrying the greatest threat by running at Wolves’ rearguard at every opportunity.
His teasing left-wing cross on 56 minutes almost brought a leveller. Gary Hooper met it at the far post with a header that took goalkeeper John Ruddy out of the equation, but the knockdown was behind Wallace and in front of Rhodes.
The longer the search for an equaliser went on, the more dangerous a proposition Wolves became on the break.
Romain Saiss headed narrowly wide from another Cavaleiro free-kick before Leo Bonatini dragged a shot wide at the second attempt.
Carvalhal responded by throwing on Lucas Joao and Atdhe Nuhiu and within seconds Joao had a glorious chance to equalise from Palmer’s inviting, clipped cross, but the Portuguese striker could only head over.
Nuhiu got the crowd on their feet with his determination, but Wednesday never threatened again.
If anything, Wolves looked more likely to put gloss on a polished away performance with a second, a feeling that grew when Morgan Fox was dismissed for the Owls late on for a second bookable offence to compound the sense of frustration.
Sheffield Wednesday: Wildsmith; Palmer, Loovens, van Aken, Fox; Wallace, Jones, Butterfield (Joao 63), Reach; Hooper, Rhodes (Nuhiu 63). Unused substitutes: Kean, Matias, Pudil, Abdi, Venancio.
Wolves: Ruddy, Doherty (N’Diaye 90), Bennett, Coady, Boly, Vinagre; Saiss, Neves; Cavaleiro, Jota, Bonatini (Costa 72). Unused substitutes: Norris, Batth, Gibbs-White, Miranda, Enobakhare.
Referee: D Bond (Lancashire).