Chelsea, Pochettino praised as Europe beckons but Brighton continue to play De Zerbi out of move

Jason Soutar
Chelsea head coach Mauricio Pochettino and Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi shake hands before a match
Mauricio Pochettino and Roberto De Zerbi shake hands before a match

Not so long ago, there was talk of Mauricio Pochettino being the wrong man for Chelsea and Roberto De Zerbi being the ideal candidate to replace him.

Football quickly changes, with the narrative around Chelsea flipping dramatically and Brighton’s performances seeing De Zerbi’s name become linked with fewer high-profile jobs by the week.

Brighton and De Zerbi will likely play the injury card with Solly March, Kaoru Mitoma and Julio Ensico among those missing lots of football in 2023/24. That is not an excuse with the teams above them such as Newcastle and Manchester United suffering much worse luck in that department. Hell, even Chelsea have missed Reece James, Ben Chilwell, Christopher Nkunku, Wesley Fofana, Levi Colwill and Robert Sanchez.

The budgets of all three of those clubs are astronomical in comparison to little ol’ Brighton, but the point still stands. The Seagulls and De Zerbi set very high standards last season. The Italian schooled Mikel Arteta in the run-in, earned convincing wins home and away against Chelsea and Manchester United, reached the semi-final of the FA Cup and qualified for the Europa League.

It was always going to be hard dealing with a club-first European campaign alongside Premier League football, and in a season in which De Zerbi’s stock should have risen, he is now being laughed off when linked with clubs like Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Liverpool.

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Wednesday’s 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea means Brighton have still only won four Premier League matches since the turn of the year. Just one of those was away from home, and that was over Sheffield United, so that hardly counts. Another came against Roy Hodgson’s miserable Crystal Palace at the Amex. The other two were 1-0 wins at home to Nottingham Forest (we should think so) and Aston Villa (we’ll give you that one).

In fairness to Brighton, the second half on Wednesday night was a lot better than the opening 45 minutes after De Zerbi gave his players the hairdryer treatment. They were still suspect when Chelsea had the chance to counter but they created a lot more than they did in the opening half and were much more direct in possession.

Their improvement became null and void in the 64th minute when Nkunku got his blue balloon out. Malo Gusto’s assist was inch-perfect and the finish was just as it had to be. A really nice goal that gave the Blues a safety net but more importantly saved me from a rewrite as I, between you and me, committed very early to the Brighton bad, Chelsea good narrative.

There was a late goal for Brighton courtesy of Danny Welbeck as they piled the pressure on following Reece James’ red card. It would not be enough but if it was 10 v 11 sooner, things might have been very different.

While we touch on the actual match, Cole Palmer scored again. The boy is good. Real good. With all the money Chelsea have spent, who would have expected him to be the best by a country mile? You’re lying if your hand is raised.

In a game where Palmer’s 22nd Premier League goal of the season came and Chelsea’s upturn in form continued, Brighton and De Zerbi’s compatibility strained further. Are we saying it is time for an amicable split? Not quite. But what we are saying is that we expected a lot better. And that there is no chance De Zerbi should be considered by a so-called bigger club.

Four wins, six draws, and eight losses in the Premier League this year tell that story. Liverpool and Bayern are among those who are correct to steer well clear.

This abysmal record is compounded by a 4-1 aggregate defeat to AS Roma in the last 16 of the Europa League, ending a proud debut campaign in Europe, and an exit in the fifth round of the FA Cup against Gary O’Neil’s Wolves.

While Brighton have played themselves out of consecutive seasons in Europe and De Zerbi out of a glamourous new job, Chelsea have played their way right into contention and are now in a very strong position to qualify for the Europa League when that seemed impossible a few months ago, with Mauricio Pochettino turning things around. It is a real success story for the ‘Billion Pound Bottlejobs’.

-Wednesday’s result at the Amex – where former Albion favourites Moises Caicedo and Marc Cucurella were booed – saw Chelsea earn a crucial victory that will see them qualify for the Europa League if the table finishes as is and Manchester City beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final, which is…likely.

The calendar year table has the Blues sat fourth, only behind Liverpool, Arsenal and Man City, while Brighton are 15th with a -10 goal difference. For what it’s worth, Chelsea were 13th in the 2023 standings, 20 points behind seventh-placed Albion.

Perhaps the biggest proof that Chelsea and Pochettino are compatible after all is the fact that the Londoners were 12th on April 2. That’s pretty remarkable for a team now sixth with one game left. Bournemouth might be another side playing well at the minute, but that is a fixture the Blues will be happy with as they look to beat Newcastle to the second Europa League spot.

We have been massively critical of Chelsea since Todd Boehly’s takeover but they absolutely deserve credit. While De Zerbi and Brighton deserve the kicking they have received.

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