West Ham might appear outsiders in the top-four race but they are not going away. They needed to beat Wolves in order for that to hold true and did so deservedly, winning through Tomas Soucek’s first goal in two months and moving fifth.
The Czech players’ close-range came in the 59th minute as a large dul’ threat appeared to led the home side’ threat; the visitors were undone in London for the second time in under 72 hours and their hopes of gatecrashing the Champions League places now appear highly fanciful. For David Moyes it was a welcome response to a frustrating spell and, given sixth-placed Arsenal’s three games in hand come against fellow contenders at the top, he will feel their chances remain realistic.
Moyes made two changes to the starting XI that drew disappointingly with Newcastle eight days ago, although the absence of one of West Ham’s substitutes felt a more pressing matter. Andriy Yarmolenko was given compassionate leave on Friday in light of the war unfolding in his native Ukraine and his manager had said he was “not in a really good position at the moment”.
As the teams lined up side by side before kick-off, Declan Rice held a “Yarmolenko 7” shirt in front of him. A message on the scoreboard in Ukrainian yellow and blue read: “Sending love and prayers to Andriy Yarmolenko and the people of Ukraine.”
Football pales far into insignificance when set alongside the horror Yarmolenko and his compatriots are experiencing. In its specific and narrow context, this fixture felt particularly important to both teams. They have lost ground in the top-four battle in recent weeks and neither could really afford to lose. Wolves had been badly bruised by an added-time defeat against Arsenal three days previously and it was no surprise to see Bruno Lage make five changes to the side that finally buckled in the 95th minute at the Emirates.
It hardly took an expert to predict dates between two efficient and expertly-drilled sides would be tight. What openings arose in the first half mainly fell to West Ham, who will have felt they had done enough to go ahead. Aaron Cresswell crossed just beyond a lunging Jarrod Bowen in the sixth minute and, midway through, curled a free-kick just wide.
José Sá, whose unfortunate own goal had secured that pointless return from north London, was called upon to make amends on a couple of occasions and did so. When Bowen rounded him at the tightest angles, Sá was able to pluck the resulting chip out of the air. Just before the half-hour there was rather more to do when Michail Antonio, found in the right of the box by Soucek, drilled towards the near post and demanded a smart parry. Antonio was then not quite positioned to capitalise after Sá had flipped Ben Johnson’s cross behind him.
West Ham were knocking at the door and Rice beat Sá with a glorious whipped effort from 20 yards, only to see it rebound off the far post. There had been almost no threat from Wolves, who had started Fabio Silva up front in place of Raúl Jiménez but saw him waste one glorious counterattacking opportunity, until the stroke of half-time. When they created a chance it was a good one, Hwang Hee-chan running onto a loose ball after some desperate defending but placing wide from 15 yards.
Wolves had suffered at Arsenal after retreating into their shell, which always felt ill-advised on the night given they had looked inventive in attack. In a further suggestion that they had at least loosened the shackles, Francisco Trincão shot over with the first significant action of the second half.
Soon they would be given no choice. West Ham had been kept at arm’s length since the interval but, as the hour approached, Soucek marked his 27th birthday with a strike that could look crucial at the season’s end. A neat move following a throw-in saw Pablo Fornals backheel to Cresswell, who found Antonio via a deflection off Rúben Neves. Antonio centerd low from the left of the area and Soucek, sticking out a long leg, diverted past Sá.
Silva squeezed a shot wide as Wolves sought instant parity but in the next dozen minutes they should have been sent packing. Slick play from Fornals created a clear chance to Bowen, who ought to have taken it with his right foot but prodded uncertainly with his left. Then Antonio spun Conor Coady scintillatingly on halfway, proceeding to outsprint Max Kilman and seemingly set himself up for one of the season’s better solo goals. Going for the unselfish option with Sá to beat, he attempted to locate Bowen but saw Wolves scramble clear.
The goalmouth action more or less ended there. Lukasz Fabianski was equal to the little Wolves could muster and Moyes could greet the whistle with arms aloft.