If all Brighton’s matches in Europe are this exciting then it should be some ride. A thrilling spectacle in which João Pedro equalised twice from the penalty spot after AEK Athens had taken the lead through Djibril Sidibé and then Mijat Gacinovic ended in frustration for Roberto De Zerbi as Ezequiel Ponce sealed a smash and grab victory for the Greek champions with a late goal.
It was a harsh lesson for Brighton, who badly missed the leadership qualities of defensive linchpin Lewis Dunk as they failed to deal with AEK’s threat on the break all night. But given the journey they and their supporters have been on to get here over the last decade, De Zerbi will know that all is not lost.
Dunk’s absence had been rumoured in the buildup to kick-off, with the England defender thought to be struggling with a neck problem, and he was sorely missed as AEK ruthlessly took advantage of Brighton’s inexperience at this level. A large contingent of travelling supporters was boosted by the presence of AEK’s London fanclub and they celebrated their victory long into the rain-sodden night on the south coast.
De Zerbi had rung the changes again after Brighton’s convincing win over Manchester United at the weekend, with only four players who started at Old Trafford retained in the starting lineup. That meant Ansu Fati – who has joined on loan from Barcelona until the end of the season – made his first start and there was a less than impressive debut for the Brazilian defender Igor Julio in place of Dunk in the heart of defence.
De Zerbi had stressed beforehand that Brighton could use this competition to continue their evolution and there was a real sense of anticipation in the air as the teams emerged to a cacophony of noise and waving blue and white flags. It was only 14 years ago that this club were still languishing in League One and playing their home matches at a local athletics stadium but, under the shrewd ownership of Tony Bloom combined with De Zerbi’s tactical nous, they feel like they belong at this level already despite this setback.
Yet it certainly was not in the script when Sidibé’s bullet header from Ehsan Hajsafi’s corner after 11 minutes gave AEK the lead before Jason Steele had to stretch to deny Levi García immediately afterwards. The Trinidadian then spurned another golden opportunity to extend the lead for Matías Almeyda’s side, only to drag his shot badly off target.
Fati then registered Brighton’s first shot on target before Igor was wayward with a free header after being picked out by João Pedro’s cross. It was the Brazilian forward who provided the breakthrough after the Estonian referee Kristo Tohver had initially shown him a yellow card for diving following a challenge inside the box from Hajsafi. But that was swiftly overturned by VAR, with De Zerbi not daring to watch as João Pedro sent Cican Stankovic the wrong way to equalise. Yet neither the Brighton manager nor Dunk, who was watching on from the stands, could believe their eyes when another lapse of concentration in defence allowed Gacinovic to inadvertently slide home Hajsafi’s free kick to restore AEK’s lead six minutes before the break.
The home side emerged early for the second half, no doubt with De Zerbi’s half-time teamtalk still ringing in their ears. But Igor, who played in last season’s Europa Conference final against West Ham for Fiorentina, was again caught napping by an early AEK break and deservedly shown a yellow card for bringing down García. James Milner then made way for Tariq Lamptey as Brighton attempted to increase the energy, only to be held up for a significant delay when the impressive Hajsafi was taken off on a stretcher.
It took a moment of madness from Damian Szymanski to offer Brighton a lifeline as the Poland defender stumbled on the edge of his own area when under little pressure and seemed to panic as he brought down Pedro for another penalty. Once again, however, referee Tohver saw it differently and had to be persuaded by the VAR before Pedro doubled his tally with clinical precision from the spot.
De Zerbi was shown a yellow card after a brutal challenge from substitute Milad Mohammadi sent Lamptey sprawling as tempers threatened to boil over. João Pedro came closest to putting Brighton ahead, only to be denied by a good save from Stankovic before the substitute Ponce punished Kaoru Mitoma for giving the ball away cheaply. Despite 13 minutes of injury time, however, Brighton could not find another equaliser and must learn quickly from this defeat if their first European adventure isn’t to prove shortlived.