For Brighton and Hove Albion, this was one of those scenarios when the age-old saying about sport’s value in the taking part rang true. It was never likely to be about the winning, not against Premier League favourites with all the massed qualities that Manchester City bring. In some ways it’s no bad thing this one is ticked off now. Brighton can get on with the task in hand with a different kind of focus.
It was a testing afternoon even if City were not at their slickest. They still possessed more than enough finesse to dominate, cruise through the game, and pick up three points thanks to two late goals.
Brighton could have been handed a gentler first course at English football’s top table. Perhaps a Watford or Huddersfield or Burnley or so the stereotype would have it … As it turned out the highly tuned and luxuriously reinforced ambition of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City purred their way down to good old Sussex by the sea. The excitement was mixed with a dose of trepidation.
The chasm in terms of resources was made plain by the fact City’s new collection of full-backs cost more than the funds raised to construct the Amex Stadium, but it was the football gap Brighton were keen to mind.
First of all they had to master their own nerves. The sense of heady occasion, the mark of history, all the anticipation that had gripped this part of the south coast seemed to weigh heavily on the Brighton players for the first 20 minutes. They looked apprehensive, snatching at attempted passes, constricted by the situation.
Top-flight football has returned to these parts after a pause that dates back to 1983, and the voyage since involved a dip to a nadir that meant the club’s league status hung by the most fragile of threads 20 years ago. The asset stripping destruction of the their Goldstone Ground, the homeless years, the slow and loving rebuild of a club forced to start almost from scratch but with its soul intact reached this giddy point where a boisterous crowd rubbed their eyes and welcomed Premier League football with spine-tingling noise.
City hugged the ball, retaining possession for long uninterrupted stretches as a foundation. Chris Hughton watched on calmly from his dugout. Guardiola gestured more intensely, such are his expectations for a serious challenge this term.
Although City did not start with particular dynamism, David Silva’s creative spark shone. Kevin De Bruyne had the first serious sight of goal with a free-kick won as Silva’s dancing feet were tripped. The Belgian gave the debutant goalkeeper Mat Ryan a comfortable early catch.
The playmaker Dale Stephens had a scare when he connected with Silva’s searching cross – the ball fizzed narrowly wide. A peach of a pass picked out Gabriel Jesus, whose darting run was timed superbly. The Brazilian caught the ball at speed and it bounced off his leg and scooped off his arm and in. The referee, Michael Oliver, immediately spotted the infringement and there was no question of a goal.
Jesus had a more authentic chance moments later when Sergio Agüero teed him up with an enticing cross, but he popped in a free header without huge conviction. Ryan dealt with it with a one-handed save.
Slowly Albion began to relax into it. Just before half-time they conjured a half-chance. Bruno’s diagonal ball reached Jamie Murphy, whose touch was not precise enough to ask a question of Ederson but there was encouragement to make a decent attempt at a breakthrough. From a set piece Pascal Gross arced in a header for a first effort on target. Ederson caught it without undue fuss.
City tried to find a new gear after the break. Fernandinho took a snap-shot gathered by Ryan. Then Jesus found the net but an offside in the buildup was greeted joyously by the Albion fans.
The best chance of the early second-half flurry fell to Agüero, who latched on to Shane Duffy’s loose pass, opened up his body and looked set for a deadly finish. His shot was strangely off beam.
Then Brighton found another gear of their own. Jamie Murphy led the charge and briefly City were under pressure. Shane Duffy stabbed in a shot. A corner for the home team put some heat on Ederson. Lewis Dunk came close and when the ball pinballed out to Davy Pröpper the Dutchman lashed wide.
The pendulum swung back as City regained momentum and began probing again. De Bruyne carved room for himself to strike with ferocity. The ball hit Dunk’s hand and despite City’s protestations the official showed no inclination to award a penalty.
The visitors would not wait long for a moment to celebrate, though. When Stephens lost possession City broke with clinical precision. De Bruyne clipped the ball to Silva, whose cute first-touch pass was threaded perfectly for Agüero. The ball was guided past Ryan with unerring cool. There would be no way back for Brighton when City doubled their lead three minutes later as Dunk headed Fernandinho’s cross into his own net.
All in all it was a lesson for Brighton. How much they take on board, and how quickly, will be the focus for Hughton.