Some people danced in the car parks at the City of Manchester Stadium when the Abu Dhabi United group bought Manchester City. Some of their supporters were devastated. Many of the rest of us rolled our eyes and looked to the heavens. The reinvention of Manchester City might take some time to complete, and last night was stark evidence of this. Brighton & Hove Albion, on the other hand, remain something of a curate’s egg. They won two of their first three matches in League One, but have stumbled since then, with recent results including a 4-1 home thrashing at the hands of Scunthorpe United and a 1-0 defeat against Walsall, who managed to grab all three points at The Withdean Stadium in spite of having two players sent off.
The warning signs for Brighton were ominous. Manchester City had warmed up for this match by beating Portsmouth 6-0 at the weekend. The result was the summation of a good start to the season, marred only by a home defeat by Chelsea and an away loss at Aston Villa. They made changes for this match but still put out a strong team, including Jo, Caspar Schmeichel and Richard Dunne. This, however, is Manchester City that we’re talking about here, and the hubris of the Manchester City supporters singing, “you only came for the CIty” was set to blow up in their faces. Ultimately, those doing the singing should have realised this before they started. If there is any club whose supporters are likely to have such pomposity blow up in their faces, it’s City. True enough, a record crowd of 8,700 had turned up for this match, but one suspects that this was as much because something instinctive buried deep in the brains of lower division club supporters knows that City are good for this sort of thing.
The first half was a low key affair, which gave away little of the drama that would ensue. After twenty minutes, Steve Thomson suddenly broke away down the right hand side and shot against the inside of the post. City were stuttering, and even when Jo broke clear just before half-time, he found his shot by the legs of the Brighton goalkeeper Michel Kuipers. The two teams went in at half time goal-less, with Brighton supporters just starting to believe that a surprise might be possible. The feeling was sustained for the first fifteen minutes of the second half, but City snatched a barely deserved lead on sixty-four minutes, when Gelson Fernandes’ shot took a massive deflection off Tommy Elphick and in. The sense of deflation in the air was tanglible, and City should have seized the initiative and killed the game off, but they stumbled. Glen Murray broke through and saw his shot blocked by Schmeichel’s legs and, with two minutes to play and City having seemingly not learned the lesson from that close shave, Thomson got away on the left, and his cross-cum-shot was turned in by Murray from a couple of yards out.
Into extra-time, then, and City were still wobbling. It took just four minutes for Brighton to take the lead. Dean Cox pulled the ball back for Joe Ansinyah, and the striker, on loan from Preston North End, showed outstanding composure to steady himself and poke the ball wide of Schmeichel and into the corner of the net. Ansinyah then had a chance to put the result beyond any doubt, but Richard Dunne blocked. In the second period, though, City drew level when the unfortunate Tommy Elphick misjudged a long ball down the centre and Stephen Ireland poked the ball under Kuipers to give City another chance. One has to wonder whether the comparative silence of a penalty shootout on a pitch surrounded with an athletics track had anything to do with what followed. Both teams scored their first three, before Ansinyah scored to put Brighton 4-3 up. Next up was Michael Ball, but his shot was brilliantly saved by Kuipers. The final act of an enthralling evening’s football came with Matt Richards sending Schmeichel the wrong way to send Brighton through.
Mark Hughes was magnanimous in defeat, saying that, “we should have been professional enough to have seen it through”, but the truth is that this defeat showed up the lack of depth in his squad at present. The League Cup may have been Manchester City’s best chance of winning a major trophy this season, although they do still have the minor consolation of the FA Cup, the UEFA Cup and trying to earn themselves a place (however unlikely it may seem on the basis of last night’s performance) in the Champions League. For Brighton & Hove Albion, the reward is an eminently winnable home win against Derby County in the next round and, of course, the admiration of the rest of the world of football for beating the billionaires. Money, it would seem, isn’t quite everything just yet.