With less than a quarter of the season remaining and no time to waste as Brighton and Newcastle seek to fortify their precarious places in the Premier League, the significance of this six-point Saturday night was clear to all. Only Brighton lived up to the occasion, producing a sublime performance to beat pedestrian Newcastle 3-0 at the Amex and deviate six points from Fulham in the relegation zone.
A single point separated Brighton and Newcastle in 16th and 17th places before Saturday night. Despite their similar rankings, it would be difficult to find two relegation candidates in such contrasting moods.
In recent months, Newcastle have been plunged into gloom as they fell down the table, with insufficient quality in the final third, injuries to key creative players and the sad sight of Steve Bruce’s side producing two victories since December.
Conversely, even though Brighton has been drawn into an unwanted relegation battle, they continue to exude calm and confidence in their long-term vision with Graham Potter at the helm. That cold night in Falmer was a claim that sometimes the league table does indeed lie.
It’s a reality that Bruce himself was still in shock afterwards. “I was absolutely shocked that Brighton was so far ahead of us in all departments tonight,” said Bruce. “We just haven’t done enough. This is the biggest frustration.
The first half went as planned, Brighton easily dominating possession by methodically entering the area with smooth and short passing combinations. What could have been a generally promising but unsuccessful first half was instead enhanced by the flourishing talents of Leandro Trossard, the exceptional player on the pitch. First, he created the best chance of the first 35 minutes by finding Neal Maupay, whose shot was blocked, with an excellent cross.
Then, as a weak Newcastle first half worsened with Isaac Hayden forced off the pitch after suffering a knee injury, Trossard took the game in hand, netting the first shot via an exquisite first goal. He gently controlled a long ball before launching a right-footed shot from the edge of the box, which whistled into the lower right corner of the net.
For Newcastle, it was just another sweet and sad performance without a hint of fighting. They were terrible on the ball, rarely even in foray into the home side’s half of the field. They only managed two pitiful touches in Brighton’s box in the first half, had one shot and 25% possession.
Their form could only improve and for a brief moment she did. At the start of the second half, the outside side generated sweeping motion in the final third, ending with Miguel Almirón finding Ryan Fraser in space to the left. Fraser’s finish grazed the post and bounced back.
Any hope that Newcastle could have taken advantage of their clear first chance was immediately smothered. Moments later, Danny Welbeck picked up the ball to the left, cut off his right foot, then folded a searing 25-yard strike into the right corner.
Brighton finished the game firmly in control and was, for once, clinical when it mattered. After a long passing streak through the entire Brighton squad, Pascal Gross gave Maupay a cross, who finished the move with a brilliant, brilliant volley. It was okay. A team that had been so often defined by their poor finish produced three superb and varied goals in quick succession to win one of their biggest games of the season.
Bruce subsequently ignored the debate over his continued employment. “As I’ve always said, it’s up to others to answer,” he said. “The only thing I’ll never do is give up anything because we had a bad loss. We have been OK, I think, we have not been terrific in the last few weeks. But tonight, I have to accept the criticisms that will come their way and the fallout that will come from them.
A look to the future highlights how timely and important this excellent performance was for Brighton and how overwhelming this lifeless display was for Newcastle.
The next game for the home side is a brutal three-game series against Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea. Newcastle still have Tottenham, West Ham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester and Manchester City ahead. While Potter’s side will have the opportunity to tackle their legendary opponents with renewed confidence, hopes for Bruce’s Newcastle continue to fade.