Neves ready to beat ‘special’ Lopetegui
Midfielder thankful to Sevilla coach who started his career European quarter-final will push Nuno’s men ‘to the limit’
For once, Nuno Espirito Santo may be second in line for a hug from Ruben Neves as the pair scale another milestone together in their remarkable three-year adventure at Molineux.
This Wolverhampton Wanderers side are the house that Nuno hammered into place, but Neves, his key midfield building block, was made by the man sitting in the other dugout tonight, Julen Lopetegui.
It is almost six years to the day since the Sevilla head coach, then at Porto, took a leap of faith by thrusting Neves, aged 17 years, five months and two days, into his starting line-up during his first match in charge.
Neves repaid Lopetegui’s faith by scoring within 12 minutes, becoming the youngest scorer in the club’s history in a 2-0 Primeira Liga triumph over Maritimo.
Now, as their stars are aligned again in the biggest match in Wolves’ recent history, the 23-yearold says he owes the “very, very special coach” a debt of gratitude.
“I cannot lie,” he said yesterday.
“It’s a very special coach. For me, he was the one that put me in to play at 17 years old. That’s a great thing for me.”
In 2016, Lopetegui had been strongly linked with the Wolves job prior to Nuno’s arrival, but he instead went on to manage Spain and then Real Madrid before joining Sevilla in June last year.
Instead, it was star playmaker Neves who would play a part in turbo-charging the Midlanders from 15th in the Championship to a European quarter-final. “His support enabled me to play, so it’s a very, very special coach for me,” Neves said of the Sevilla manager.
“But tomorrow, of course, I want to beat him because I want to go through. But like I said, he is a very special coach, and I’m thankful to him because he started my career.”
Nuno, meanwhile, says he is proud of the identity his side have developed over the past three years as they prepare for a first European quarter-final appearance in 48 years.
Reflecting on the club’s progress over his three years in charge, Nuno said: “The foundations are strong. I am very proud. Now I think we can see we have our own identity, which is based on strong foundations of respect and hard work. This is what we show against Sevilla – a good team, with a strong identity and committed to the challenge.”
Jonny, the Wolves wing-back, has been ruled out for as long as nine months after injuring his anterior cruciate ligament. Nuno said yesterday that his “spirit” would be with the side in a match he expects to be decided by small margins.
The Portuguese paid tribute to his side’s “resilient” qualities in what will be Wolves’ 59th game of a season that started on July 25 last year. The club secured seventh place in the Premier League after football’s restart and head into the Sevilla game on the back of only one defeat in their past five fixtures.
Sevilla have won the Europa League five times since 2006. “We know they have won the tournament before, but it’s a different tournament now with just one leg,” Neves added. “It’s hard for every team. There are very good teams in the tournament, so it’s a completely different way to play the Europa League. It will be like a final for us and for Sevilla. I hope we can go through to the semis.”
Lopetegui said: “It’s a different type of competition to how it’s been played before. But it is a competition which will ask the same kind of questions that we have been asked all season – to play to the maximum of our abilities.
“As you’d expect, they will demand that we play a great game. We need to think about ourselves, in how we’ll face up to them and use our strengths.
“They are a really tough opponent who will worry us and will ask a lot of us. It will be a really even game and both sides will push each other to the limit.”
Heads up: Ruben Neves (left) challenges Adama Traore in training yesterday