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Rayan Ait-Nouri exclusive interview: Wolves defender on why the top-four race is far from over

Wolves' Rayan Ait-Nouri discusses how Bruno Lage's side recover in the Premier League's top-four race, playing against Kylian Mbappe and Neymar - plus his dream of featuring in this year's World Cup

Rayan-Ait Nouri on why the top-four race is not over
Image: Rayan-Ait Nouri on why the top-four race is not over

He may be just 20 years of age, but Wolves' Rayan Ait-Nouri is already fully aware of the requirements needed in this competitive Premier League.

"These games are quick and results can change from one moment to the next," he tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview. "You've got to stay focused for the whole 90 minutes."

Ait-Nouri found that out the hard way in his last Premier League outing, the crushing, last-gasp turnaround by top-four rivals Arsenal, who scored two late goals against Bruno Lage's side to overturn an early Wolves lead - both of which came from the young defender's left flank.

Much was made of Arsenal's celebrations against Wolves in the two slender victories for the Gunners in February. Ruben Neves claimed Mikel Arteta's players were acting like they had "won the league" in the Molineux leg - and the feeling from the Emirates turnaround still irks Ait-Nouri a little.

"They celebrated like that - but that's how it is," Ait-Nouri said. "They knew it was a big game against a team that's difficult to play against.

"We'll remain concentrated, focused and we'll try to have good games like we were having before. We lost our focus in the last 15 minutes, they scored twice. But it's not over, we can still prove ourselves."

Ait-Nouri was named on the bench for Wolves' next clash at West Ham but the team's concentration levels were exposed once again for the Hammers' winner. Tomas Soucek was allowed to venture into the penalty box completely unmarked in the second half, and another defeat to a top-four rival was placed on Wolves' plate.

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Ait-Nouri's Wolves are still reeling from recent defeats to Arsenal and West Ham
Image: Ait-Nouri's Wolves are still reeling from recent defeats to Arsenal and West Ham

Ahead of their next Premier League game at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday, Ait-Nouri knows Wolves cannot afford to let these mistakes reappear if they are to finish in the European slots.

"Honestly, these were disappointments but we played well in those games," he said. "These were important matches but there are plenty games left to play - the season's long. But it's now down to us to remain focused to put in the best possible performances and results."

If Lage's side are to recover in this top-four battle then their defence, including Ait-Nouri, could get them over the line. Excluding Manchester City and Liverpool, Wolves possess the best defence in the Premier League in terms of goals conceded, despite some communication struggles for their left wing-back - now in his second season after moving from French club Angers last term.

"The Wolverhampton accent is quite hard to understand," Ait-Nouri laughs. "I also don't understand everything captain [Conor] Coady says. But I've settled in well with a great group who work hard everyday. At the start it was hard, but it always is for a young player.

"There are lots of changes compared to France. The change in country, culture, food, weather makes it tough but I've adapted. Plus it's a hard league with a lot of ambitious objectives.

"But I've tried to put in the best performances every weekend and I'll continue to do that. Football is like a religion here for the fans, so we've got to do our best for them."

Ait-Nouri is emerging as a talented young defender at both ends of the pitch
Image: Ait-Nouri is emerging as a talented young defender at both ends of the pitch

Wolves now have the chance to go on a run, with their next six games against teams in the bottom half of the Premier League table - although a tough final run-in will see them host Manchester City before their last away trips of the season against Chelsea and Liverpool.

That will not be too daunting a challenge for Ait-Nouri, who has been in the deep end since the very beginning. His career debut was a fleeting cameo away at Paris Saint-Germain of all teams in August 2018, with the teenage defender tasked with defending Kylian Mbappe on his wing, with Neymar just inside of him.

"In the moment, that was surreal," he recalls. "I was watching them on TV and there I was defending against them!

"That was a dream but it's now a motivation. Playing against the better sides brings the best out of you. The Premier League is made for this, every game is massive - like an intense final against the best players."

It feels as though Ait-Nouri belongs on the big stage, and the 20-year-old's statistics prove that. The defender ranks second in the Premier League in terms of regular left-sided full-backs in terms of tackles and take-ons completed, while he stands out in Europe as one of the best one-on-one full-backs from an all-round view.

Ait-Nouri is highly-ranked among Wolves' players this season
Image: Ait-Nouri is highly-ranked among Wolves' players this season

Should he continue that rise, then he could well spend the second half of 2022 playing European club football and preparing for the World Cup. Ait-Nouri even has two chances to get to Qatar, through either the French and Algerian national teams - though no international allegiance decision has been made yet.

"These have been dreams since I was a kid," Ait-Nouri reveals when asked about Europe and the World Cup. "I've got to keep working hard to play in the top competitions. It's been a dream, but now it's an objective.

"Everyone wants to play in the World Cup, and I'm really well-positioned on an international scene. If I've got the chance to play there for either country, France or Algeria, that would be a massive honour. They're massive teams and I'm really proud of both my French and Algerian roots."

Ait-Nouri has shown he can dominate the left-hand flank
Image: Ait-Nouri has shown he can dominate the left-hand flank

But then comes the cool head on his shoulders. "Of course, I'm focused on my club and trying to put in the best performances I can." And it is back to how Wolves can claw back their top-four credentials.

"We've lost games before and we've won plenty of other games after that," he says. "It's down to us to put in the best displays."

Time will tell if Wolves have learned from their London lessons.

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