Typical. You wait 122 years for a European night, and then it’s as silly as that. Classic Europa. Vintage Hankook. Brighton baffled. And it pissed down.
They were in large part creators of their own downfall in a performance some way short of their slick best and on a night when Lewis Dunk’s quiet authority at the back was sorely missed. But even so, Roberto De Zerbi will scratch his head and wonder quite how Brighton lost a game they largely dominated.
All five goals had a hint of the bizarre. Both Brighton’s goals came from penalties. Like, really obvious penalties. Yet neither was initially awarded on the field. Both required VAR’s intervention. With the first, that also required quashing a yellow card for simulation absurdly brandished at Joao Pedro who was fouled for both penalties and scored both penalties. If the yellow card made the first one the more egregious, the second was perhaps the less explicable as the striker nipped in to dispossess a bamboozled AEK defender and got a hefty boot across his shins for his trouble. We’re not in the game of giving referees stick here, but pretty sure that’s not allowed.
Both those goals were equalisers, and both times you thought “Okay, now Brighton will go on and win this”. But no. AEK just kept scoring despite never really looking like they would continue to do so.
The opening goal was absurd for its brilliance. Who doesn’t love a long-range header? Nobody, and Djibril Sidibe was closer to the edge of the box than the penalty spot when bulleting the ball into Jason Steele’s top corner.
AEK’s other two goals were, with the best will in the world, flukes. There was much to like about the creation of both goals, first from a wickedly delivered set-piece out on the left and then a lightning counter-attack as Brighton poured forward in search of a winner. Both times, though, the ball pinballed around before coming last off an AEK leg and finding the bottom corner.
Brighton have to hope and trust that the Europa won’t always be like this but it quite often is. We love the Europa League, but it can be a bit of a twat. You make a few changes, you don’t quite have your normal cohesiveness, the ball doesn’t run for you and suddenly it can all go horribly wrong. Really, Brighton did nothing that Liverpool didn’t do themselves earlier in the night. Apart from get away with it.
And it undoubtedly gets tricky now for a team with no experience of the Thursday-Sunday-Thursday treadmill. A group containing AEK, Ajax and Marseille looked great when all was well in the Brighton world. It’s a group that instinctively feels more Champions League than Arsenal’s actual Champions League group. But Brighton, who started the night second favourites for the whole tournament behind only Liverpool, have now lost what was on paper and almost certainly also on grass their easiest challenge.
Their next is a trip to Marseille and a legendarily intimidating stadium with suddenly a great deal on the line. The good news for Brighton, beyond the simple fact that they can now call themselves a Europa League team, is that Marseille and Ajax drew 3-3 in the group’s other game tonight so the Seagulls haven’t lost as much ground as they might have.
But while it’s certainly true that tonight still represents a landmark night for a football club that almost dropped out of the Football League altogether in really quite recent history, there’s no point pretending this isn’t also a crushing disappointment.
Brighton are better than this. They are certainly better than AEK. And if we ignore for a moment the European debut element to it all, it’s also the second time at this early point in the season in which Brighton have ultimately been undone at home by a team with a clear plan to stifle and counter. De Zerbi must know others will have watched and feel they’ve learned something.
Overall, though, the occasion outdid the game. Viewed solely as a game of football it was a shrug of a thing. A silly game with a silly result that didn’t really reflect the balance of play – nor too did the 12 yellow cards handed out often apparently at random while far more notably serious offences went entirely unpunished.
Their own errors, some dumb bad luck and scattergun officiating all made for a dispiriting first go at this European football lark for Brighton, but they’re still far too good not to have some far better experiences of it down the line.