Barnsley 0, Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
A goalless draw at home would appear to offer no cause for celebration.
However, when it is achieved by a team struggling to steer clear of the relegation places and with only one win in 13 games, against opposition 10 points clear at the top of the table, scoring goals for fun and unbeaten in their last 14 League and Cup outings, then there is good reason for at least a certain amount of elation.
Wolves, under former Porto boss Nuno Espirito Santo, have been a revelation this campaign, adopting a fluid 3-4-3 system and playing some spell-binding football which seems certain to end with a return to the Premiership.
Yet in this game at Oakwell they were unable to produce a shot on target for the first time this season.
And that in itself speaks volumes for the home team’s spirited performance, which had hard work, discipline and organisation as its the three key elements.
Wolves knew what to expect. In the first match at Molineux in September the Reds kept the ball brilliantly, tried to play football in the right way, posed the Wanderers many problems and looked to have earned a deserved point with a 91st minute equaliser until Alfred N’Daiye’s 93rd minute winner.
The return encounter saw another superb effort on the part of Paul Heckingbottom’s side – especially after the painful 4-1 FA Cup trouncing at Millwall the previous week – put a salutory brake on the Wolverhampton express which is currently running away with the Championship title.
As their manager himself succinctly put it after the game, referring to the Barnsley head coach: “Paul knows what he’s doing.”
What he is doing right now is seeking to find a way to succeed in the short term by retaining the Reds’ Championship status while at the same time building for the future.
And, as so many before him have done, he is building from the back. His team has now kept a clean sheet for the fourth time in the last six league games and that gives them a solid foundation on which to progress.
Liam Lindsay and Ethan Pinnock are developing a good partnership in the centre of defence, while Dimitri Cavare and Andy Yiadom look comfortable in the full-back roles and, on this occasion, Gary Gardner barely put a foot wrong in the midfield anchor role vacated by the suspended Joe Williams.
Steve Mallan and Brad Potts also denied Wolves space in central midfield, while Adam Hammill and Lloyd Isgrove – until the latter’s absence through injury for the second half – along with the tireless Ton Bradshaw up front, provided the counter-attacking outlets.
It was Hammill who produced Barnsley’s first goal attempt in the 11th minute, but it was a tame effort easily dealt with by John Ruddy, and there was little other penalty area action of note until just before the interval when Ethan Pinnock sent a glancing header wide from a Mallan free-kick; Potts did likewise when Hammill curled in a tempting cross; and at the other end the influential Ruben Neves fired just over the bar.
Chances remained at a premium after the break, but the Reds conjured one up on the hour with their best move of the match. Potts, Moncur and Bradshaw combined in the build up down the right to set up a shooting opportunity for Mallan, but he failed to strike the ball as cleanly as he would have liked and Ruddy had no problems making a save.
Eleven minutes later Yiadom came to his side’s rescue with a magnificent tackle after Cavare had given the ball away – his one lapse the entire game – and almost immediately Wolves threatened again when Leo Bonatini cut in from the left but sent his shot soaring over the bar from a difficult angle.
The game was opening up a little now and Hammill was inches wide after Pinnock had headed the ball into the middle from a near post position after a long throw from Cavare.
Then Diogo Jota smacked the bar with a thunderous drive and the same player was guilty of the miss of the season four minutes later when he somehow or other contrived to send the ball over the bar from barely a yard out after Ivan Cavaleiro’s cross had eluded everyone else.
Both Jota and Helder Costa had goals ruled out for offside, but the Reds had the chance to win it eight minutes from time, only for George Moncur, a second half substitute for the injured Isgrove, to send his shot wide of the target.
Sensing that there was still a chance to nick all three points, Heckingbottom sent on Mamadou Thiam to partner new signing Keiffer Moore – who had made his debut as substitute for Bradshaw 10 minutes earlier – in a twin strike force, but Wolves survived and both teams had to be content with a hard-earned point.
Moore, however, had already done enough to suggest that he will be a more than useful acquisition, adding height and power to an attack which has lacked both all season.
Heckingbottom summed up his feelings after the match when he said: “I was pleased with the performance and I enjoyed the game. I thought we played well and you can see why they [Wolves] are top of the league.”
Barnsley (4-1-4-1): Davies; Cavare, Lindsay, Pinnock, Yiadom; Gardner; Isgrove (Moncur, 45 mins), Potts, Mallan (Thiam, 86 mins), Hammill; Bradshaw (Moore, 65 mins).
Wolves (3-4-3): Ruddy; Bennett, Coady, Boly; Doherty, Saiss, Neves, Douglas; Costa (Cavaleiro, 64 mins), Bonatini (Mir, 72 mins), Jota.
Bookings: Mallan (Barnsley), Saiss, Jota (Wolves).
Referee: Keith Stroud.
Attendance: 16,050 (4,700 Wolves)