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After following up their superb FA Cup 4th round victory at Liverpool with a 1-3 win at Barnsley on Tuesday night, Wolverhampton Wanderers will travel to Burton on Saturday aiming to register 3 wins on the bounce for the first time this season.
Against Burton, deeply rooted in a relegation scrap having lost 9 of their last 14 matches, Wolves will fancy their chances but it says a lot about their lost season under Walter Zenga that they are only 7 points clear of their midlands rivals.
Takeover and questionable managerial calls
Chinese conglomerate Fosun international took over the Molineux club for £45 million in the summer and immediately boasted big ambitions, making use of their close ties to super-agent Jorge Mendes to pull off the £6.8 million signing of Ivan Cavaleiro from Monaco as well as loan deals for Helder Costa and Joao Teixeira from Benfica.
Kenny Jackett was ruthlessly sacked having guided Wolves to seventh following the promotion from League One in 2013-14, and it appeared odd just how freely Fosun were willing to trust Zenga, whose only previous coaching experience came with a series of club throughout Italy, the Middle East and eastern Europe, with the finances.
Despite his training methods becoming popular with the players, Zenga found it understandably difficult to integrate a number of technical foreign players in such a short period and, with his lapse attitude to off-field duties threatening conflict behind the scenes, he was sacked after just 87 days with Wolves 18th in the table.
Paul Lambert’s record of successive promotions with Norwich meant he, if not an underwhelming one, was the choice to take-over and after a slow start the Scot has begun to turn around the club’s fortunes, winning 5 of the last 10 in the league as well as leading Wolves to the fifth round of the FA Cup with successive victories away at Premier League opposition.
A likely sell-out crowd will now await Chelsea later this month and there are signs, with league wins over Aston Villa and Barnsley, disrupted by a 3-1 defeat at Norwich, they are beginning to pick up momentum.
Successful January window
The January transfer market was also a quiet success, with Helder Costa’s loan made permanent, after he tormented Liverpool, to a club-record £13 million while Ben Marshall, a winger who impressed under Lambert at Blackburn, was added late on deadline day.
Marshall will add creation to an attack line that has at times looked short on inspiration, with main-striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson scoring just twice since making a £2 million move from Kaiserslautern. Nouha Dicko has not scored since returning from knee ligament damage in October.
Meanwhile Costa has been a revelation, scoring 7 and providing 5 while David Edwards has 9 goals, including two at Oakwell on Tuesday, to his name, but they are both midfielders.
Lambert knows, having watched Villa nearly nick a point from Molineux in January after his team dominated, that he requires more conviction from his striking department.
That may come from Andreas Wiemann, Lambert’s former Villa charge who scored the winner at Liverpool a week after coming on at Norwich for his debut after signing on loan from Derby County.
The Austrian’s pace and clever movement on the counter was deadly at Anfield and will be more of an asset to Lambert’s possession-ceding style than the measured passing of Teixeira, who was offloaded on loan to Nottingham Forest on deadline day.
Strength in depth and a prosperous youth system
Lambert’s strength in depth is highlighted by the fact he rang 7 changes for the trip to Anfield before making another 6 for the trip to Barnsley, with 21-year-old Kortney Hause solid at the back regardless of whether he is partnered by Danny Batth or Richard Stearman.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s loan move from Manchester United seemed like a coup but he has been shut out by Matt Doherty while Connor Coady and Dominic Iorfa compete intensely for the right-back slot.
A prosperous youth-system has also introduced Jack Price, Connor Ronan and Bright Enobhakhare to a well-stocked midfield that includes Romain Saiss, George Saville and Joe Mason as well as the pivotal Edwards.
20-year-old goalkeeper Harry Burgoyne was named man of the match despite letting four goals past him in the draw with Fulham in December, and has filled the gloves of the suspended Carl Ikeme superbly over the last two matches, impressing at Anfield and picking up a memory to cherish along with it.
He is the youngest of a young squad that has changed the outlook of Wolves’ season over the past couple of matches.
Notorious rent-a-quote Stan Collymore may have been busy labelling Fosun as “rookie owners” on Tuesday evening in direction to the influence of Mendes, but with Lambert’s cautious eye stabilising progress on the pitch, the Chinese board at Molineux appear to be moving back in the right direction after the disastrous experiment with Zenga.
Pressure on the record signing
With Costa the jewel in the crown of a well-rounded, now-balanced squad, the task is on, starting at Burton on Saturday, to ensure the eye-watering £13 million spent on him is not a false economy.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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