True enough, it’s only the Third Round of the League Cup and both of the teams playing this evening, whether rightly or wrongly, may well feel that they have bigger fish to fry than this competition this season. There is, however, something in the sea air in Brighton this evening. The trains into the railway station are jammed solid and the queue for the trains out to The American Express Community Stadium snakes out of the station and around the concourse outside. There’s no hint of trouble, of course, and everybody is safely in their seat by kick-off the time of kick-off, but the sheer volume of traffic of the majority of a crowd of almost 22,500 pouring through a main railway station during the rush hour adds inevitable pressures. It all seems, however, dealt with very professionally indeed.
The gulf between a club the size of Brighton & Hove Albion and a club the size of Liverpool remains massive but, going into the match at least, the home supporters have cautious cause for optimism. Their team has made a bright start to the season and a narrow defeat at Leiecester City at the weekend has only slightly dampened the air of optimism amongst the club’s support that promotion, the move to the new ground and a largely unexpectedly strong start to the season have engendered. This evening, however, is the start of seven very testing days for the club. As if playing one of the Premier League’s more immovable edifices tonight isn’t enough, they return to league action in just forty-eight hours with a match against Leeds United, and this is followed by another home league match, against rivals Crystal Palace on Tuesday night. These are the welcome pressures that come with their recent success.
Liverpool, meanwhile, come into this match at something of a crossroads after two successive away defeats in the Premier League. This has apparently had an effect on Kenny Dalglish, and the team that he has selected tonight is a strong one, lacking the usual array of names that ring half a bell, some of whom may or may not be taxi drivers that have won some sort of raffle, which usually pock-mark this stage of the League Cup and it’s not difficult to believe that Brighton could feel the backlash of Liverpool’s embarrassment after Sunday afternoon’s drubbing at White Hart Lane. For all of these concerns, though, there is a palpable sense of occasion at The American Express Community Stadium, tonight. It’s proof, as if it were needed, that well-designed modern stadia are plenty of capable of producing an electric atmosphere if the crowd is in the mood and, as ever, the entrance of the teams to the marching band sound of Good Old Sussex By The Sea sets the hairs on the back of the neck on end.
It doesn’t take long for Liverpool to sweep into the lead. After a couple of minutes of pushing forward straight from the kick-off, Liverpool’s fluidity and flexibility over-run the Brighton midfield. The goal comes with a move of simplicity and class, Luis Suarez’s pass finds Craig Bellamy and Bellamy’s diagonal shot beating Kasper Ankergren comfortably. It’s his first goal for Liverpool since he scored in the Nou Camp in 2007, and it looks as if his re-signing for Liverpool might just turn out to be a cannier acquisition than most gave Kenny Dalglish credit for. From here on, Brighton should vanish in Liverpool’s rear view mirror, but the second goal never quite comes. This isn’t for a want of trying – Bellamy’s free-kick hits the crossbar, Dirk Kuyt out-jumps Ankergren and sees the ball hacked off the line by Craig Mackail-Smith, Suarez heads narrowly wide and a daisy-cutter from Jay Spearing is flicked onto the base of the post by Ankergren.
Brighton, meanwhile, looked cowed by their opposition, and it takes them more than half an hour for them to establish any sort of rhythm. When they do, though, they manage to work themselves into a couple of decent positions. Will Buckley has approximately a quarter of a shout for a penalty when he goes to ground on the edge of the penalty area, but nothing is, correctly, given, and in stoppage time, Craig Noone is put through, has his shot blocked by Jose Reina and, in the resulting scramble for the ball, Martin Kelly clears to safety as Matt Sparrow lunges throws himself at the ball. Liverpool lead at half-time and deserve it, but they should be more comfortably ahead than they are.
Ninety seconds into the second half, their relative profligacy during the opening forty-five minutes almost comes back to bite them. Sebastien Soares plays a pass across the back line which falls somewhere between the categories of “lazy” and “bizarre”, Noone collects the ball and fires in a shot which arrows past Reina and out off the crossbar. With this moment, the tempo for the second half is set. Brighton play the second half much as Liverpool played out the first, and the chances continue to trickle through. Sparrow finds a little space and Reina has to block his shot, and Noone, who seems to be playing in about three positions at once, shoots narrowly over from distance. The roles of the first half have almost been reversed, and Liverpool are limited to snatched half-chances.
With nine minutes to play, however, they pull one last trick out of the book to wrap the game up. Brighton are still pushing forward in search of an equaliser, and Liverpool’s break when they win possession is devastatingly effective. Bellamy’s pass finds Maxi Rodriguez, who pulls his marker out of position before rolling the ball through to Dirk Kuyt and Kuyt, from a bit of an angle, draws Ankergren out and then rolls the ball past him and in. This is a step too far for Brighton, who have given everything and, after a ropey opening half-hour, have given as good as they got and might have counted themselves a little unfortunate not to have drawn themselves level, considering the amount of possession that they had enjoyed throughout the rest of the half.
There is still time for a grandstand finish, though. Vicente, who won La Liga twice and the UEFA Cup with Valencia, has made his debut for Brighton this evening and he is a wily enough old fox to be able to lure Jamie Carragher into felling him, and Ashley Barnes’ penalty is thrashed past Reina. The four minutes of stoppage time, however, are not long enough for them to be able to force another hole in this Liverpool defence, and it is Liverpool who will take their place in the Fourth Round draw for this competition. Brighton, meanwhile, can go on to concentrate on the league and the FA Cup, but they can take plenty of consolation from a performance which, after a shaky start, saw them control long periods of the game. Liverpool, meanwhile, have broken a mini-hex and can look forward to the next round of the competition and an eminently winnable match against an out of sorts Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday. They walked more of a tightrope than they would have liked this evening, though.
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