The Thursday Preview: Brighton Vs Bournemouth
The choice of which game to cover didn’t take long this week. Reduced to picking a match from Leagues 1 and 2 because of another tiresome international break (which unfortunately hasn’t put a stop to more inane Liverpool takeover talk), the Sky-televised contest between Brighton and Bournemouth at the Withdean was an easy pick, not least because I’ll probably be watching it.
Whether I’ll be in the stadium to see two of the third tier’s current top three in an open question. My brother-in-law (if I were married) lives in Brighton and supports Albion; his partner gave birth just a few hours ago, so it’s likely that I’ll be making my way down to Good Old Sussex by the Sea tomorrow evening on baby showering duty. Having noticed that there’s a game on, the major dilemma has been whether it’s to soon to ask about likely attendance. Mark and I get on roaringly well, but how will a congratulatory text with a line on a ticket to Saturday’s match go down? Such is the type of question posed by all ticket matches.
Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that I was actively avoiding the possibility of having to endure a Brighton game at the Withdean. Following a few pretty dire years up in the Championship, an air of languor and inhibition pervaded the club on its return to League 1 and I looked on in mild dismay as their prospects of bouncing back nosedived. Delays to the new stadium at Falmer coincided with a flatlining home record, the realisation that an array of promising youth team prospects weren’t that hot and a succession of mediocre loan signings (Robbie Savage anyone?). Throw in a couple of returning ‘legends’ in Micky Adams and Adam Virgo, and you have a recipe for decline.
A few years on, though, and the Seagulls’ mood couldn’t be any brighter or breezier. Poker-playing chairman Tony Bloom has bankrolled the mightily impressive new stadium at Falmer, former chairman Dick Knight’s measured gamble to bring Gus Poyet to the club has proved inspired and Albion are sitting pretty at the top of the table. Albion are currently seven league games unbeaten, and having conceded just three goals in that time it’s difficult to look beyond the defence when considering how their success has come about.
Those in the dark might assume that such a healthy defensive record owes to the arrival of centre half Gordon Greer, but the one season wonder has been out injured for the duration of the streak. Instead, erstwhile full-back Adam El-Abd has stepped with distinction into the centre, forming a solid partnership with popular local lad Tommy Elphick. In the full-back positions have been two ever-presents: once wantaway Spaniard Inigo Calderon and Marcos Painter, formerly of Swansea. Book-ended by September Player of the Month Casper Ankergren in goal and defensive midfielder Liam Bridcutt, who’s been performing the deep-lying Charlie Adam role, this rarely-changing back six seem to have been the key to the Seagulls’ strong recent form.
Further forward, nippy wide boys Elliott Bennett and Kazenga Lua-Lua have stretched the opposition, which has often allowed Brighton to take games by the scruff in the centre. Poyet has favoured starting with just one up top, usually the human battering ram Ashley Barnes, but Glenn Murray and Francisco Sandaza have also enjoyed ample game time and have each notched a goal or two.
It’s hard to see Brighton starting without a second striker against Bournemouth on Saturday. As this recent Guardian Football League Blog piece contends, the Cherries’ bright start to the season wouldn’t have been as entertaining without the consequences that a frail defence poses, and this has been most apparent on the road. A stunning win at Tranmere aside, Eddie Howe’s men have failed to keep a clean sheet away from Dean Court, conceding two goals in each of their last three away matches.
Having lost so dismally at Southampton last week, it’s less than tempting to back Bournemouth at the Withdean. Up against a team that’s on such a strong run, particularly at home, and which is enjoying the fanfare of Sky’s coverage at their current base, Bournemouth are set for a real test. What could possibly go wrong? I better send that text…