WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - MAY 22: Mick McCarthy of Wolverhampton Wanderers applauds the fans after avoiding relegation during the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers at Molineux on May 22, 2011 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
It's rare that we're afforded such a treat; two unbeaten sides, both on the very precipice of Premier League glory, waging battle against each other. Even better, this is a derby, with all the tension and drama the word entails. The stakes will be high, the atmosphere electric, the eyes of the world focused upon Birmingham. Two of English football's most legendary clubs, long since fallen from their formerly lofty heights but making a triumphant return to their rightful place.Or something like that.
In seriousness, Wolves have been playing some very nice football these first few weeks. A 2-1 win over Blackburn isn't a whole lot to write home about but a pretty dominant 2-0 thumping of a decent Fulham side is legitimately impressive. This isn't a Wolves team that should be all that much improved from last season with the only additions of note being Jamie O'Hara and Roger Johnson, but it's important to remember that last season was completely atypical; despite Wolves finishing 17th, there wasn't a whole lot separating them from the top half. In a more typical year we'd be talking about how much Wolves strong performance shocked everyone and how they look like a club on an upwards trajectory.
And maybe they are. On any given day, Wolves are a team that compete with anyone. This is in fact the club that handed Manchester United their first loss of the season in February. They came pretty close to pulling off a few other major upsets along the way, and few of you will likely need to be reminded of their 1-0 victory at Villa Park in March. Wolves are a team that don't get beaten soundly very often, but they don't keep things close by playing negative or otherwise boring football. Mick McCarthy has done an excellent job with his team and the end product is a team that makes up for what they lack in raw talent with excellent organization and a great deal of tactical savvy.
Matt Jarvis is of course the player to watch in this game. Jarvis will line up on the left which might be of particular interest in tomorrow's game; with the status of Luke Young's move to QPR still in doubt, it's entirely possible that we'll see Eric Lichaj lineup at the right back position. That would be a very tough task for the youngster, and it's one of the few mismatches Wolves may be able to exploit. Up top will likely be the pairing of Steven Fletcher and Kevin Doyle, but Wolves did experience a bit of blow this week with the news that Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, typically something of a change-of-pace option up top, will be out of action for a month due to damage to the ligaments in his knee. The central midfield is something of a gritty pairing; Karl Henry and Jamie O'Hara are a hard-tackling pair and what they lack in creativity they make up for in tactical awareness and solid game-reading skills.
The addition of Roger Johnson has brought a new edge to the back-line; despite his previous unseemly associations, Johnson is a solid center-half and immediately improved the quality of an often shaky Wolves defense to respectability upon signing. There are still question marks about the quality of keeper Wayne Hennessey, but it's difficult to impress when trying to cover for the failings of a sub-par back line. O'Hara and Johnson aren't necessarily the most thrilling additions, but for a club that allowed 66 goals last season they might have been exactly what was needed.
As things stand right now, Wolves aren't a club Villa can expect to beat up on justify by virtue of their being Wolves. Playing at home, they'll be favorites. There are areas of weakness to exploit, and if Darren Bent and Charles N'Zogbia are able to make hay they shouldn't have too much difficulty in claiming three points. But it's reasonable to expect a very tight affair and a draw or even loss is not necessarily a sign of an impending implosion. This isn't a bad side, one that may well surprise some people with their quality this season, and Villa are still finding their identity. And of course, it is a derby. Plenty of crazy things can happen in these games.