Julen Lopetegui has had far more glamorous nights in the business but victory in his first game in charge of Wolves to advance to the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup represented job done as they sneaked past fourth-tier Gillingham courtesy of goals by the substitutes Rául Jiménez and Rayan Aït-Nouri.
Wolves cannot be too fussy about wins either, this just their fifth of the season, three of which have come in this competition. For long periods it seemed a game low on quality and clear-cut chances was destined to be decided by a penalty shootout but the League Two side pressed self-destruct late on, conceding a spot-kick which Jímenez, making his first Wolves appearance since August, calmly converted before Aït-Nouri sealed victory in stoppage time.
Lopetegui is a coach of great pedigree – hence Wolves’ owners Fosun’s delight at appointing him as head coach at the third time of asking – but his first game in charge was tantamount to an entry-level test. Nevertheless, Lopetegui recognised the awkwardness of the task, referencing Gillingham’s victory over Brentford in the previous round. Ruben Neves captained Wolves on his return, 10 days on from his World Cup quarter-final exit with Portugal, while José Sá, who did not feature in Qatar, lined up in goal.
Lopetegui made it as far as a World Cup four years ago, taking Spain to Russia, but was sacked on the eve of their opening game against Portugal in Sochi – in which Diego Costa, who also started here, scored twice – after the federation took a dim view of his secret talks about taking charge of Real Madrid.
These teams may be three divisions apart but both are propping up their respective league tables, Wolves the Premier League and Gillingham League Two. Gillingham, relegated last season, have not tasted victory in the league since October and set up to flummox a Wolves team for whom this season has also been utterly miserable.
The travelling Gillingham support sarcastically cheered Hakeeb Adelakun’s wayward shot shortly before half-time and when the lone striker Mikael Mandron earlier won a free-kick on halfway they decided it was a worthy cause for celebration.
Lopetegui was given a rousing welcome before Wolves’ previous match, defeat to Arsenal in November, and before kick-off here the South Bank unveiled a striking tifo with the words ‘Julen is a Wolf’. Lopetegui expressed a wish to see evidence of his six and a half weeks of uninterrupted preparation since taking charge but until Neves rattled a post with the last touch of an underwhelming first half there was little to whet the appetite for the coming months. There was a neat triangle of passes, a rare slick move that unravelled when Joao Moutinho took a heavy touch and a few minutes later the midfielder Joe Hodge, who was replaced by Adama Traoré at the interval, wasted a golden chance, heading wide unmarked inside the six-yard box from a Gonçalo Guedes cross. Neves also powered a free-kick past a post.
Wolves seemed strangled by the expectation to swat aside lowly opposition. Lopetegui urged calm as Nélson Semedo speculatively blasted wide after the break. Matheus Nunes, Hwang Hee-chan and Jiménez, three more Wolves players fresh from World Cup duty, entered in the second half and the hosts slowly stirred.
Costa volleyed wide from an Adama Traoré cross and then Jiménez could not arrange his feet after Costa’s smart layoff from a chipped Nunes pass. Jiménez headed wide from a corner soon after but Wolves were gifted a route to victory when Cheye Alexander tugged at the shirt of Hwang with 14 minutes of normal time to play. Jiménez stepped up to the penalty spot and stroked the ball into the corner to set Wolves en route to the last eight.