In the battle of former Bournemouth managers, neither Eddie Howe nor Gary O’Neil could prevail. A full-fledged contest contained plenty of high-end flair but too many reminders that VAR serves to incite criticism and put pressure on referees rather than making their lives easier.
Anthony Taylor, the referee, made a series of questionable – and unpopular – decisions, including the penalty from which Callum Wilson scored his and Newcastle’s second goal. Taylor left the stage to boos from the home fans who had mocked his every subsequent decision; Stockley Park had been slow to respond to his call. The longer the deliberations in the video room, the more suspicious the paying public becomes.
Wolves, fired by injustice, finally found their deserved equalizer through the effervescent Hwang Hee-chan just as Newcastle looked likely to shake off a post-Champions League hangover and an opponent dangerous and fit.
With Sandro Tonali’s global ban on the game confirmed by Fifa, Howe’s choice was limited. His team is feeling the burn of playing Champions League football. Injuries to Jacob Murphy and Alexander Isak against Borussia Dortmund, coupled with the continued absence of Sven Botman, have left a well-resourced team looking almost bare.
O’Neil, after revealing the secrets to his success in last week’s decisive win over Bournemouth Monday Night Football, had selected Nélson Semedo and Mario Lemina upon returning from suspension. Amid the Molineux mizzle, Newcastle, going for the Saudi green, started with the sole aim of Pedro Neto, the Wolves maestro, giving an early indication of their danger by overtaking a struggling Dan Burn.
Hwang, trying to match Derek Dougan’s early season exploits 50 years ago, was equally lively, but Sean Longstaff took the first shot for good, slotting the ball wide. O’Neil’s side pushed as high as they could, playing Howe’s men at something of their own game, with both teams committing big numbers to hunt down the ball.
Wolves’ press produced an uncharacteristic mistake from Kieran Trippier from which Hwang and Matheus Cunha exchanged passes when a snap shot on goal from Nick Pope might have been a better option. Instead, he made a regulation save against Cunha, and Wolves were doubly punished when José Sá, almost immediately afterwards, dropped Anthony Gordon’s cross into the path of Callum Wilson, who gobbled up the opportunity to overtake Shola Ameobi and Andy Cole in the Newcastle Premier League scorers’ table. A VAR check only proved that the unfortunate Sá had collided with his teammate Traoré.
When Pope made a fine full save after a wild solo run from Cunha, Sá’s mistake became even clearer. Yet in a first half full of adventurous attacking and seat-of-the-pants defending, Lemina’s header from Neto’s corner was just reward for Wolves. Neto thus overtook Trippier in the Premier League assist rankings, and the England defender was guilty again, leaving his man nodding.
Hwang was next to make an error, with a challenge on Fabian Schär leading to the referee awarding a penalty, but there was an interminable wait for the VAR review. The Korean appeared to have hit the ground first rather than the Newcastle defender and yet Wilson had a chance to score his second from the spot. Sá’s chance at redemption came and went as he got his hands on Wilson’s shot, but not enough.
At halftime, the halls groan; a VAR complaint for a possible Bruno Guimarães handball had been rejected much to the annoyance of the wild-eyed O’Neil. The morality of the Premier League was being called into question by Jack Hayward’s Stand chant.
Tommy Doyle’s passing ability was introduced in place of Traore as Wolves looked for a way back. Trippier looked lucky to escape a warning for an obvious foul on a galloping Cunha as the howls of outrage continued. “If it were us, you’d kick him out,” they then chanted after Hwang’s run was blocked by Jamaal Lascelles. Discontent quickly turned to joy as Hwang slalomed past Burn and scored the equalizer after some good supporting play from Toti.
The end-to-end game continued, with Schär firing a header wide of a Trippier cross after O’Neil introduced Sasa Kalajdzic, with the Serbian giant asking the Newcastle defense various questions. His impressive removal from a long ball caused panic in the Newcastle area but, despite the exhortations of their frantic and sodden managers, neither side could find their winner.