BRIGHTON — With just over 24 hours left before kick-off against the holders, Roberto de Zerbi had an almighty spanner thrown in the works. Moises Caicedo, who had missed just two games this season, would be unavailable, having been sent home for a reflection period after publicly asking for a transfer in light of Arsenal’s £60 million offer for his services.
The intention had been to start with two centre-forwards, as Brighton eventually did, but Caicedo was to do what he has done as well as any midfielder in the Premier League, dictate the rhythm of the contest and disrupt opposition attacks. Even for a club accustomed to being disrupted by the Premier League’s money elite, this could well have been a discombobulating development. Underpinning Brighton’s exceptional season has been a midfield that would be the envy of most of Europe. No team can rattle up Rodri replicant just like that.
That’s the context for watching Brighton’s claimable, irresistible 2-1 win over Liverpool in the FA Cup’s fourth round, one earned for them when theirs Marc Cucurella substitute delivered the cross and their Leandro Trossard substitute delivered a moment of genius. Kaoru Mitoma would find himself at the bottom of a jubilant scrum as De Zerbi, the man who had arrived mid-season following Graham Potter’s defection to Chelsea, made plans to hold onto the lead in injury time. Whatever the timescale, Brighton seems capable of making the necessary transition.
Caicedo’s absence brought with it something of a restructuring of the Brighton midfield, what has largely been a 4-2-3-1 under De Zerbi changing to a 4-4-2 with Danny Welbeck partners with livewire Evan Ferguson at the top. And yet the hosts seemed completely at ease without one of their best players, dictating the battle for possession in midfield, creating the better chances and keeping Cody Gakpo and substitute Darwin Nunez under control even without impressing their manager, who “didn’t like the game.” His assessment was less glowing than that of his defeated counterpart. Jurgen Klopp was right that this was not as bad a performance as Liverpool had produced in the 3-0 defeat here a fortnight ago, but it seemed a little difficult to say: “this time nobody would have been surprised if we had won.” Liverpool had been second best in more of this competition than they were top.
No wonder, when they always played catch up along the flanks. Mitoma has turned the departure of Trossard into irrelevance, for all that the Belgian has made a brilliant early impression at Arsenal, Brighton have earned up to £26m and further cleared the way for the Japanese striker, whose first touch left Trent Alexander-Arnold twisted. Better defenders than Liverpool’s right-back would have no answer to the jinking of Mitoma, who left later in the first half Joe Gomez flat on the deck before curling a shot in Alissonthe arms to.
Alexander-Arnold had previously made a decisive block on the line after Solly March had driven through what approximated a Liverpool midfield and crossed low for Evan Ferguson. Naby Keitas drive to the right flank could have opened up other spaces for Mohamed Salah, but it went Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago stunned as Brighton won the ball back. Liverpool’s engine room has had enough problems at full strength this season and it seemed curious that Klopp would choose to take one player out of it to build an attack.
In doing so, however, he freed Salah to drift into the kinds of pockets from which he could create danger. In a manner he has not done in recent seasons, the Egyptian needed plenty of chances to make an impact as he saw Lewis Dunk clear off the line before rolling wide Jason Steele‘s far posts when one against one. He would eventually have a significant hand in Liverpool’s opening. Holding the ball until the right moment, his gliding pass was found Harvey Elliotta low drive that whizzes off Steele’s palm and into the net.
Brighton were not cowed and were soon level with a goal completely against the elegant football they had served up at the Amex. A corner was cleared as far as Tariq Lamptey, whose underpowered daisy cutter still came at Dunk too quickly for the captain to get out of the way. Alisson was stranded when the ball rolled past his right leg.
Liverpool re-established themselves early in the first half but looked at best scrapping themselves for a replay, all thunderous tackles stretching the limits of legality at best. It was hard to believe Ibrahim Konate avoided another yellow when his shot at Alexis MacAllister was deemed fair play by David Coote, who appeared to be in generous spirits as he handed out another Fabinho for a clattering foul on Ferguson, which would end soon after.
The visitors almost got what they wanted, but in addition Mitoma delivered a fantastic winner. Lifts the ball into the air with his first touch of Pervis Estupinan’s cross. He lifted his right boot and convinced Joe Gomez that he was about to pull the trigger. Instead, a delicate flick brought with it a different angle to unleash the blow. From such close range, Alisson never had a chance.
For the third year in a row, the holders were out in the fourth round. Suddenly, Liverpool find themselves in a deep dilemma, the team that took every trophy down to the last few balls in 2022 now left with just one competition they can win in the next four months. Brighton, meanwhile, have their sights set on the kind of tangible top-flight honors that their rise has yet to bring them.
“We are the famous Brighton and we are going to Wembley,” was the cry from the Amex.
It will take some side to stop them from getting there.