Brighton & Hove Albion have given themselves the platform halfway through the season to challenge for a European place for the first time in their history.
Brighton have an opportunity under Roberto De Zerbi to add their name to that list of clubs of comparable stature after Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Leicester extended their unbeaten away run in all competitions to seven matches since losing at Manchester City in October.
This is a season like no other. the World Cup has skewed the fixtures — by the end of January, Brighton would normally be deeper into the campaign than 19 games played.
De Zerbi has only been in charge for 13 of those since succeeding Graham Potter in September. There’s a good chance that, as the players become more accustomed to the Italian’s playing style, they will get even better in the second half of the season.
Especially as the possibility remains to strengthen the squad further this month after signing 18-year-old Argentinian Facundo Good night.
The point secured at Leicester by Evan Fergusonanother 18-year-old with a big future, eased Brighton up to sixth in the table, dividing Tottenham and Fulham who meet on Monday evening.
De Zerbi was bullish with good reason after Ferguson, a second-half substitute, expertly placed a header in off the far post in the 88th minute to earn a draw from a game Brighton really should have won.
“The second goal was very important, a signal for us for the second part of the season,” De Zerbi said.
“We can fight for a high position. To arrive, I don’t know, but it’s clear that we are a good team, we believe in ourselves and we are strong.”
Brighton continue to defy logic with their progression. They have reached the halfway point with 31 points after 19 games. Their record on the road is particularly impressive — they lead the league for away goals (21) and only league leaders arsenal (25) have won more away points than Brighton’s 17.
They have four points more than at the corresponding stage last season, when Alexis MacAllister struck twice in a 3-2 win at Everton that lifted Potter’s team to eighth on their way to finishing ninth.
In October, Enock Mwepu, another of the starters at Everton a year ago, was forced to retire with a heart condition at the age of 24 before he could kick a ball under De Zerbi.
As well as losing players, losing Potter and a big chunk of his backroom staff to Chelsea four months ago could easily have disturbed Brighton’s upward momentum, but they continue to blossom.
Brighton’s tally of 19 goals in their last six games is remarkable and Ferguson’s impact from the bench to score his third goal in four league appearances, supplemented by two assists, shows there is depth to Brighton’s challenge.
It’s not all hunky dory. De Zerbi’s entertainers are leaking too many goals. They’ve only kept one clean sheet in the league since mid-October, although the two goals they conceded at Leicester were slightly unfortunate.
Joel Veltman — introduced for the injured Adam Lallana in a reshuffle after Kaoru Mitoma‘s superb goal — and Lewis Dunks both made blocks before the ball fell kindly for substitute Marc Albrighton to equalize when Brighton looked comfortably in control of the contest.
Luke Thomas‘s flick-on from a corner took a faint deflection off Solly March for Harvey Barnes to put Leicester in front. Barnes reacted quicker at the far post than 22-year-old Dutchman Jan Paul van Heckewho otherwise was accomplished at centre-back on his first league start in the absence of the injured Levi Colwill.
It was annoying as well in the closing stages when Mac Allister collected a late booking for a foul on James Maddison in the cut-off game for five bookings to count as a ban. Argentina’s World Cup winner is now suspended for Bournemouth‘s visit next month.
Four of Brighton’s next six Premier League matches are against teams, like Leicester, in the current bottom nine. On the face of it, that represents an opportunity to enhance the European ambition, although they tend to labor more in breaking down sides defending in a low block.
The league is not the only avenue to Europe. Brighton messed up in the Carabao Cup, losing on penalties away to League One side Charlton Athletic in the last-16 in December, but they host Liverpool on Sunday in the fourth round of the FA Cup15 days after routing Jurgen Klopp’s side 3-0 in the league at the Amex Stadium.
In May 2021, after Brighton finished 16th in Potter’s second season in charge, owner-chairman Tony Bloom was asked whether European football is feasible to accompany the long-term vision of becoming an established top ten club.
“If being top 10 is realistic, so it’s getting into Europe,” Bloom said. “The first year we are in Europe would hold massive excitement for our fanbase, myself included.”
Considering the progress Brighton have made since then, that dream is looming large.
(Top photo: Alex Dodd – CameraSport via Getty Images)