There’s history here, you know. When Liverpool were the kings of English and European football, Brighton & Hove Albion had a curious habit of being able to dump them out of the FA Cup. They did it at Anfield on the way to Wembley in 1983, and then again at The Goldstone Ground the following year. Times have changed since then, of course. It’s more than two decades since the league championship last ventured to Merseyside, and over that time Brighton have been to hell and back. As of today, however, they remain on upward trajectory. The new ground is completed and ready for expansion, if or when required, and the team sits in ninth place in the Championship table – still well in touch with a play-off place.
Which Brighton & Hove Albion team will turn out at Anfield this afternoon, though? Gus Poyet’s team have had a hint of the Jekyll & Hyde about them this season, with the Doctor Jekyll that beat Sunderland in the League Cup and Newcastle United in the last round of this competition having to be balanced against insipid performances against lower division sides in the cup over the last couple of years or so. It’s not just the historical record that gives Brighton reason for unlikely optimism this afternoon, though. They gave Liverpool a considerable run for their money when the two sides met earlier this season in the League Cup, and results elsewhere this weekend – notably Stevenage and Birmingham City’s draws against Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea – may just have done enough to convince the players that stranger things have happened in the past than them picking up a result this afternoon.
Within six minutes, those hopes are given a thorough dousing. Brighton have already started nervously, and an early warning comes when Stewart Downing’s deflected cross-cum-shot has to be tipped over by the Brighton goalkeeper Peter Brezovan. The respite, however, is temporary. From the resulting corner, Steven Gerrard’s cross sees Martin Skrtel slip away from his marker Ashley Barnes and flick a free header across the face of goal and past the stranded goalkeeper. It’s a goal that should ease any Liverpool nerves, but Brighton are allowed back into the game. They manage some reasonable spells of possession – without ever, it should be said, seriously threatening the Liverpool goal – and after seventeen minutes conjure an equaliser from nowhere. Kazenga LuaLua is fouled on the left-hand side of the penalty area. He picks himself up, dusts himself down and fires an absolute rocket of a free-kick in, low, past the wall, past Reina and into the corner of the net.
For a short while, Liverpool look rattled, but they do start to get their rhythm back. Luis Suarez has had a quiet opening twenty minutes, but when he starts to awaken the full scale of the job facing the Brighton defence starts to become apparent. After twenty-seven minutes, he skips inside from the right-hand side, but prefers to try and place his shot rather than opting for power, and his low shot is cleared off the line by the back-pedalling Inigo Calderon. Liverpool continue to pressurise, but Andy Carroll is still playing as if haunted by a poltergeist and the best chance fall to him in the first half sees him shake off his marker to meet a Gerrard cross but, in the manner that has become rather familiar over the last year or so, he fluffs his lines and heads over from seven yards out. As half-time sails into view, however, Brighton’s luck runs out. A corner from Downing is unconvincingly punched clear by Brezovan, Suarez’s shot is blocked, Glen Johnson heads back towards goal and, after Sam Vokes has cleared the ball off the line, the ball bounces in off the unfortunate Liam Bridcutt. Liverpool lead at half-time, deservedly, albeit with a little good fortune.
Shooting towards the Kop end in the second half, Liverpool restart with much the same conviction as they ended the first, but it is an error from Brezovan which gives them their best chance of the opening ten minutes, when he comes for a long ball that Suarez is chasing. Both slip, but the ball is scrambled away, albeit after protests of handball from both Suarez and the crowd behind the goal – all of whom are wrong – but Liverpool are getting into gear now, and Downing has a shot beaten away. It feels, however, as if a third goal is coming and after fifty-seven minutes Downing pulls the ball back from the left-hand side and Carroll, in open space and twelve yards out, casts off his daemons to drill the ball in and put the game beyond any reasonable doubt.
That this lead should have opened up is hardly surprising. There has been something vaguely chaotic about the Brighton defence all afternoon, with the ball being passed around the defenders like a hot potato, while Brezovan has hardly inspired a great deal of confidence himself, punching at crosses that he should have probably been attempting to catch. That Liverpool’s first two goals came from corner kicks is no great surprise. They have had possession but created little to threaten Jose Reina’s goal other than LuaLua’s bolt from the blue, and by the time there are fifteen minutes to play, further comedy defending has pushed the scoreline in the direction of flattery on Liverpool’s part.
With a little under twenty minutes to play, Gerrard has a shot blocked by Brezovan only to be knocked over the line off the unfortunate Bridcutt, but there is worse to follow from Lewis Dunk, when he attempts to control a cross that Brezovan has deflected, fails quite singularly and the ball bobbles over the line for Liverpool’s fifth goal of the afternoon. The Brighton defence’s apparent suicide mission continues when Craig Noone fells Dirk Kuyt inside the penalty area. Luis Suarez is ordered to take the resulting penalty kick, but his shot is tame and comfortably saved by Brezovan. It’s only a temporary respite, though, and within three minutes Gerrard heads across the face of goal for Suarez to turn the ball over the line from a yard out.
So, Brighton & Hove Albion knocked Brighton & Hove Albion out of the FA Cup this afternoon, then, up to a point. Liverpool played reasonably well and deserved their win, but three own goals tells its own story and it seems unlikely that Kenny Dalglish will find things as easy again at Wembley next weekend, when they face Cardiff City in the final of this year’s League Cup. Brighton, meanwhile, have a long journey home, quite possibly with some of their players haunted by an afternoon of unprecedented error. They need to recover from this set-back if they are to continue to challenge for a play-off place in the Championship before the end of this season. It will be a small consolation for Gus Poyet this evening, but at least there are no more cups to serve as a distraction for them this season.
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