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’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By Tom Mor­gan

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

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