Wolverhampton's Raul Jimenez, centre, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's opening goal during the English FA Cup Quarter Final soccer match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United at the Molineux Stadium in Wolverhampton, England, Saturday, March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

FA Cup run hardens Wolves' status in English soccer

March 18, 2019 - 9:17 am

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — It has been abundantly clear for some time that Wolverhampton Wanderers wasn't going to be a typical promoted team in the Premier League this season.

Funded by Chinese conglomerate Fosun International. Closely linked with "super-agent" Jorge Mendes. Owning players from international teams including Spain, Portugal and Mexico.

"Wolves," as they are better known, were never going to have a problem preserving their top-flight status. It was simply a case of how high they could go in their first season back in the big time.

Even they might be surprised how well it is going.

Check out this for a season so far: Seventh in the Premier League, making Wolves the best of the rest behind the so-called "Big Six"; a place in the semifinals of the FA Cup, with a very strong chance of making the final; wins over Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham and also being the first team to take points off Manchester City in the league.

After achieving promotion last April following one of the most convincing second-tier campaigns in years, Wolves sporting director Kevin Thelwell said the "sky is the limit." He might just be right.

Beating Man United 2-1 in the FA Cup quarterfinals on Saturday, to get to the last four for the first time in 21 years, was perhaps the high point of the season for the team from an industrial city in central England. The goals came from two of the 10 Wolves players who have left to go on international duty for the next two weeks: Raul Jimenez (Mexico) and Diogo Jota (Portugal).

It doesn't get much better for supporters whose team plunged to back-to-back relegations in 2012 and '13 to end up in the third division.

"What pleases me more is, as I walk down the stands, there are people saying that they saw the 1950s and '60s and they are still coming to the stadium," said Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo, referring to an era when the team was one of the biggest in the country. "So, to give them back this joy and seeing our fans going out of the stadium with a smile feels good."

Everton has spent $400 million since 2016. West Ham, now ensconced in London's Olympic Stadium, sees itself as one of England's top clubs in a few years. But it might be Wolves who have the best chance of breaking the stranglehold of the "Big Six," who have had a rock-solid presence at the top of the Premier League since being shaken out of their torpor by Leicester's surprise title triumph in 2016.

The most crucial job for the Wolves board this offseason will be tying down the futures of some of the team's top players. They include Portugal midfielder Ruben Neves, who has been linked with Man City, and Jimenez, who is currently on a season-long loan from Benfica.

The striker has been a revelation with 15 goals this season, meaning he has outshone international colleague Javier Hernandez over at West Ham, and it might require a fee of up to $50 million to sign him on a permanent basis.

Mendes' involvement with Wolves, because of his close links with Fosun, could help get that deal over the line, just like he was influential in bringing Jota, Neves, Espirito Santo and two more Portugal internationals — midfielder Joao Moutinho and goalkeeper Rui Patricio — to the club.

Key to the team's success has been Espirito Santo's tactic of getting men behind the ball, before springing them forward on the counterattack with wing backs Matt Doherty and Jonny Otto playing pivotal roles. Deploying a 5-3-2 formation, Wolves have been among the best teams at restricting opponents to difficult chances simply by getting bodies in the way and forcing shots from distance.

Seventh looks like the being the highest Wolves can finish in the Premier League this season, with sixth-place Chelsea 13 points ahead. But winning the FA Cup for the first time since 1960 is a realistic goal after being drawn against Watford in the semifinals, which will take place at Wembley Stadium.

"It's one of the best days we'll ever have," Wolves captain Conor Coady said. "We want to go there and do it right."

Wolves have beaten Liverpool and United en route to the semifinals. Man City, which plays Brighton in the other last-four match, could await in the final on May 18.

That would be some way to crown a season when Wolves announced themselves as a force in English soccer once more.

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More AP English soccer: https://apnews.com/PremierLeague and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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