The O’s put in a performance worthy of at least a point against Wolves at the Matchroom Stadium this afternoon but a superb performance from Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme and some debatable refereeing decisions enabled the visitors to claim a 3-1 victory.
The result all but secured the League One title for Wolves, whose superior goal difference makes it almost impossible for Brentford to catch them even if the Bees win later today, however Orient were more than a match for a team that no-one would have given them a chance against at the start of the season which will fill them with confidence as they prepare for next month’s play-offs.
Wolves took a 2-0 lead in the first-half thanks to a headed goal from defender Richard Stearman and a good finish from Bakary Sakho.
Orient were highly unfortunate to go into the break without a goal as they were denied a penalty for a blatant handball from Stearman and had a series of great chances only to find Ikeme in the form of his life.
But the O’s made a superb start to the second-half and Dean Cox curled a shot into the bottom right-hand corner to give them hope of a comeback, however Wolves managed to hold out and substitute James Henry put the game beyond doubt in the final seconds with an excellent strike from distance.
When these sides last met, during this season’s Christmas period, it was Orient who went into the game sitting at the top of the table, with Wolves and Brentford close behind.
The same teams made up the top three in League One before today’s game however the formidable form shown by Wanderers and the Bees since that game has seen them both secure automatic promotion to the Championship within the last ten days, meaning the O’s will take their place in the play-offs.
So today’s game was a chance for the O’s to signal their intentions going into what could be one of the most significant months in the club’s history.
Orient suffered a disappointing defeat at the hands of Crawley Town on Good Friday but O’s boss Russell Slade made just one change to his starting line-up for today’s game with the on-loan John Lundstram replacing Lloyd James in central midfield.
Both sides started the game with energy and commitment, with Lundstram getting on the ball well for the home side, looking to provide the killer pass to one of his forwards at every opportunity, while Kevin McDonald was performing a similar role for the visitors.
And it was McDonald who had the afternoon’s first chance when he turned inside the box and curled a low effort goalwards but Jamie Jones did well to keep it out, gathering at the second attempt.
Wolves had forced a couple of corners during the opening quarter-of-an-hour and took the lead through one on 17 minutes when Danny Batth won a header which was going wide before his centre-half partner Stearman diverted it home at the back post.
Batth was perhaps lucky not to give away a free-kick as he appeared to climb on Scott Cuthbert’s shoulders to win the initial header, but the O’s players didn’t appeal and referee Neil Swarbrick allowed the goal to stand.
Orient tried to stretch their opponents immediately after falling behind but were struggling to break through and left themselves open to the counter-attack where Wolves were looking particularly dangerous through the pace of Michael Jacobs, Sakho and Nouha Dicko.
Mathieu Baudry had given the ball away in the lead up to Wolves’ opener but he almost made up for it ten minutes later when a great move from Orient culminated in Cox whipping in a cross towards the O’s centre-back but his header narrowly evaded the cross bar.
Soon after, Orient were denied a stonewall penalty when David Mooney’s powerful half-volley from 20 yards struck the arm of Stearman just inside the box. The referee might not have had the best view but it was right in front of the linesman’s eyes and should have been picked up.
However Orient’s protests were waved away and just minutes later Wolves doubled their lead. A knock-down by Nouha Dicko fell perfectly for Bakary Sakho and the forward fired his effort in to the ground, looping over Jones who had no chance.
It was harsh on Orient, whose good pressing off the ball and energetic play going forward had been more than a match for the table-toppers but Wolves showed the kind of clinical edge that has secured them Championship football next season.
But it was really their goalkeeper who they had to thank for keeping the score at 2-0 going in to half-time as the final five minutes of the half saw a barrage of chances fall Orient’s way, only for Ikeme to keep them all out.
Mooney was the first to be denied by the keeper and his low effort was soon followed by Nathan Clarke’s thumping header which was somehow tipped over by Ikeme.
From the resulting corner, Romain Vincelot sent an even better header crashing against the bar and Chris Dagnall was there to turn it home, however the O’s striker was inches offside and the goal was therefore ruled out.
Orient fans and players alike were left shaking their heads as to how they went in to the break without a goal but they were not disheartened as they came flying out of the traps after half-time.
Almost straight from the kick-off, Dagnall was sent through on goal but was again denied by a superb Ikeme save. Odubajo sent the ball back in to the box and Mooney turned well to fire another effort at goal but Ikeme stayed big to turn the ball behind for a corner.
The wave of Orient pressure continued and led to them pulling a goal back on 48 minutes when the ball ended up at the feet of Cox inside Wolves’ 18-yard box and the winger turned inside to curl a low shot into the bottom right corner through a crowd of defenders, which was seemingly the only way that Ikeme was going to be beaten.
Wolves managed to limit the danger from Orient after conceding and Dicko had a great opportunity to restore his side’s two-goal lead when a corner fell at his feet in the six-yard box but he sent a hooked effort wide of the left-hand post.
Both sides had half-chances after this: Orient through Mooney, who might feel he should have kept his shot down when inside the box in a central position, and Wolves through Dave Edwards who forced a good save out of Jones at his near post.
In an attempt to further stretch the Wolves back four, Slade sent on Shaun Batt shortly after the hour-mark and it took the forward just minutes to find himself in the thick of the action.
A good cross in was met by the head of the substitute but Ikeme was well positioned and saved well before Baudry headed it back towards goal for Batt to send another header goalwards but this time his effort cannoned off the crossbar. Mooney had the final attempt during a crazy couple of seconds but his effort was once more turned over the bar from Ikeme.
Despite the fact that Wolves still held on to the lead, it felt as though whoever scored the next goal was likely to go on and take all three points but, while both sides continued to work the ball into dangerous areas, neither were able to carve out any goalscoring opportunities after a frantic opening 20 minutes to the half.
Orient did send a number of good deliveries into the visitors penalty area however Ikeme was equal to crosses in the same way he had been to shots all afternoon, denying the O’s forwards any further opportunities to get their heads to the ball.
Having limited Orient’s chances in the closing stages, Wolves substitute James Henry broke away in the dying seconds of injury time to hit a brilliant 25-yard shot flying past Jones and into the bottom left corner of the net, confirming the three points for his side and sending them one step closer to the title despite coming up against an Orient side who pushed them to their limits, not only today but throughout the entire season.
Orient: Jones, Cuthbert, Baudry, Clarke (C), Sawyer, Odubajo, Vincelot (James, 75), Lundstram, Cox, Mooney (Lasimant, 84), Dagnall (Batt, 66)
Subs: Larkins, Gorman, Ness, Simpson
Goals: Cox (48)
Bookings: Clarke (39), Vincelot (55)
Wolves: Ikeme, Edwards, Stearman, Batth, Sakho (Evans, 84), McDonal, Ricketts (C), Price, Golbourne, Jacobs (Henry, 74), Dicko (Clarke, 74)
Subs: McCarey, McAlinded, Ebanks-Landall, Doherty
Goals: Stearman (17), Sakho (33), Henry (90+5)
Bookings: Price (38), McDonald (78)
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Attendance: 8,161 (away – 2,527)