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Eye on El-Abd: Albion stumble but still have an eye on the play-offs

On the back of an unbeaten run so far this year, and his Brighton & Hove Albion had some tough fixtures; particularly a visit to the Amex from Premiership side a few days after visiting former Premiership side Blackburn Rovers who were relegated last season and spent heavily since.

Blackburn Rovers vs Brighton & Hove Albion

This was a rearranged fixture after it was called off due to a waterlogged pitch just before Christmas.

Hopes were high on this Tuesday evening, everyone was eager to bounce back from the unlucky draw at Birmingham, everyone was looking forward to the Arsenal game on Saturday and it was a first start of the season for Albion’s former La Liga & UEFA champion and Spanish international: Vicente! … Nicknamed “El puñal” (the Dagger).

Albion’s Egyptian International, Adam El-Abd, took his usual spot at centre back to the left of fellow centre back and captain Gordon Greer. Manager Gus Poyet, put Vicente as a lone deep lying forward in their usual 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation, originally played by Poyet when he played for Chelsea under Claudio Ranieri.

Albion started well with Vicente threatening down the flanks due to his height disadvantage down the centre. Albion seemed to have most of the possession, almost all on the floor as per their style, Blackburn seemed happy to park the bus waiting for the opportunity for a lofted counter attack and use their height advantage.

In the first 40 minutes or so there had not been much action; a couple of unconverted threats from Vicente and Bridge down either flank and a previously rare but recently more frequent long shot, from Bridcutt, going narrowly wide. At the other end, former Albion Coca-Cola kid and striker, Colin Kazim-Richards put a dangerous ball in which was smacked at goal but Albion keeper, Kuszczak was equal to it.


Then in the last minutes of the half Blackburn threw another long ball into Albion’s box and while it looked like it was going over everyone, Blackburn’s Pedersen went down while being marked by El-Abd. It looked very soft but seemingly it was enough for the officials. Blackburn’s Jordon Rhodes, the 8million pound purchase from 3rd division Huddersfield stepped up and sent Kuszczak from the wrong way, to send Blackburn one-nil up at the break.

Once the 2nd half was underway away, Albion manager Gus Poyet wasted little time making changes and all three subs had been used by the 65th minute: Will Buckley and Mackail-Smith on for Vicente and Orlandi in the 55th minute and Hoskins on for Barnes with 25 minutes remaining. The Albion manager later admitted that he had made a mistake with the shape and starting line-up; it appears he expected a more technical game but instead it was far more gritty and physical.

After the changes the seagulls seemed to have all of the possession but as often happens, Albion’s opposition performed an orderly retreat under the pressure of such possession and had formed an organised barricade in front of their goal, leaving Albion fans and players frustrated.

As Brighton pushed harder for that goal, more gaps were left open and Brighton keeper Tomasz Kuszczak more than made up for his mistake the game before. Albion kept pushing on into the five minutes added time, then just as it looked like Albion would go home with a one-nil loss, in the 2nd minute of added time, Spanish-Dave was fouled in the area to earn a penalty and a chance to get something out of such a poor game; Spanish Dave stepped up and Albion’s penalty specialist put it away and saved the day. Fans were so jubilant they turned to Twitter, at one point #spanishdave was trending in the UK!

Blackburn Rovers 1-1 Brighton & Hove Albion

Brighton & Hove Albion vs Arsenal

This was arguably the biggest game to date at Brighton’s new and award winning Amex stadium and the club had added more seats in time to ensure it was the highest attendance yet in this FA Cup thriller.

It was also the first game for Albion’s new striker: Argentinian striker Leonardo Ulloa, joined from Spanish 2nd Division team: Almería; on the back of a decent scoring record; this looked like the target man the Albion fans had been waiting for.

While realistic fans, who saw Albion get beaten twice by Liverpool last season, especially the 2nd time; were not writing off Arsenal ruining their beloved Seagulls; there was a chance that Brighton’s style could have the same effect it did on Newcastle twice in two seasons.

Leo Ulloa started the game as the lone striker with Ashley Barnes inside left and Will Buckley on the right wing.
The game was non-stop excitement with both team’s style of play complementing the occasion.
Just inside the first fifteen minutes a great move between Ulloa and Spanish Dave resulted in a lovely ball over Arsenal’s back line which sat nicely for the approaching Ashley Barnes who took the ball on the volley but the Arsenal keeper kept it out.

Then Arsenal did what they did best; Albion had piled forward with the last attack and once Arsenal had the ball back they passed the ball forward, on the floor, quickly and with purpose; the ball did the work and the Albion midfield were caught ball watching for just a second but it was a second too long. The Gooners’ chief playmaker, Tomasz Rosicky, started the move which put Giroud into to enough space to slot the ball past the Albion keeper almost before the Albion fans had sat down.

El-Abd v ArsenalAlbion fans and players were stunned by this display but the players focussed quickly and took the game to Arsenal. Albion debutant, Leo Ulloa, appeared well placed to tap in Inigo Calderon’s cross after it was spilled by Szczesny in the Arsenal goal. But it was not to be, as the flag was up for a very tight off-side. Then on 33 minutes, the pressure paid off for Brighton when Spanish Dave sent in a fast curling corner to the near post which met the head of Ashley Barnes’s run perfectly for Albion’s marmite-man of the moment to head the score back to evens; and the first half was a one-all.

After the restart, it end to end stuff, firstly with Arsenal taking control then Albion counter attacking almost in reverse of the start of the match. It was however Arsenal who scored the first goal of the half; Diaby, who’s strength and committed tackling seemed to have dissuaded any more tackles from Spanish Dave; found himself with loads of time near the edge of the Albion box; as the ball came to him, Giroud started a great run right across the front of Albion’s 18-yard-line; Diaby played a very clever straight chipped ball directly over Albion’s backline, right over Giroud’s shoulder; the Frenchmen then pulled off a lovely a not un-Van Percie esque control on his toe as the ball dropped over his own shoulder, setting him up to slot the ball passed Casper Ankergren in the Albion goal.

Oddly enough, just like the Newcastle game, Albion manager Gus Poyet had chosen to play Casper Ankergren in goal again, instead of the usually preferred Tomasz Kuszczak. It’s thought that even though Kuszczak is better at all things goalie, Casper is very good with the ball at his feet, and can act like an extra outfield player while playing possession football. Which is great until he needs to save goals, at which point the qualities of Tomasz Kuszczak are sorely missed.

Two-one down with over half an hour to go and Brighton & Hove were still in with a chance; well within ten minutes of conceding for a second time Albion bounced back again. The ball went up the right hand side, at the feet of Spanish Dave, it looked like he would send as deep in-swinging cross in but instead draw the player and passed it down the right to Ashley Barnes, who’d moved from the left to make room for Kaza LuaLua when he replaced the injured William Buckely. Ashley Barnes wasted no time at whipping in a low swinging cross to the near post, just round the first defender. Leo Ulloa had already started his move, thinking and moving quicker than his marker, Barnes had spotted him and his cross was perfect, Leo dived, nutted the ball past the helpless Arsenal keeper and once more the scores were even.

At this point it dawned on Arsene Wenger that he might not actually win this game, so he reached for the big guns. Walcott and Wilshere came straight on and shortly afterwards the exhausted Leo Ulloa was replaced by Craig Mackail Smith and Albion’s aerial out-let was gone.

elabd-v-arsenal2Kazenga Lualua was still a threat once the ball was at his feet but Arsenal were looking the better side and with five minutes left on the clock Albion were sent behind for the last time; an Arsenal corner was poorly punched away by Capser in the Albion goal, it fell nicely to Theo Walcott who volleyed the ball goal-bound into the crowded box. As usual the committed Adam El-Abd threw himself at the the ball to stop another shot that day, unfortunately the ball hit his shoulder and span-off into the net. Adam had stopped countless shots all day and stopped world class players in their tracks, it was a harsh, harsh ending.

Albion made a great account of themselves, the game really deserved a draw but it was not meant to be and now they can focus on making the play-offs.

Brighton & Hove Albion 2-3 Arsenal

vs Brighton & Hove Albion

Playing at Hillsborough is always tough, especially seeing as Brighton have never won a game there. On the back of a great performance against Arsenal, expectations were high, especially with Leo Ulloa starting and a chance to pick up where he left off against the Gooners the week before.

The game started with signs of how it would go on when the excited Leroy Lita, on loan from Premiership Swansea, took out Liam Bridcutt in the first few minutes.

Less than a minute later Wednesday put a free kick into Albion’s box and Leroy Lita converted the cross to put Sheff-Wed one-nil up within five minutes. A foul a piece in the next five minutes continued the pattern of the game.

Leo Ulloa, the big strong Argentinian target man, was able to hold his own inn the mix and came close a few times in the first half but was always just off target or foiled by a great save from, former Liverpool and England keeper, Kirkland.

Albion tend not to do well in the rougher games: a team that out-plays other teams on the floor, each player with some or a lot of flair, tends to be all or nothing; Even with the likes of Liam Bridcutt who appears to be able to get out of any trouble and times tackles to perfection and of course Albion faithful, Egyptian International Adam El-Abd, who has no fear and doesn’t seem to feel pain. So when the opposition start to push the boundaries and the referee does not give enough, Albion then give it back but bit a more and when the Spanish flair turns to red mist, cards ensue.

barnes-ff_shefWedAfter all of his amazing form of late and shutting up all the critics, Ashley Barnes reminded everyone why he’s Albion’s Marmite man; the petulance had been building for a few weeks and half an hour into the match Barnesy did a Barnesy with a classic two footed lunge, earning him an instant red card. If that wasn’t bad enough for Albion’s comeback effort, Shef-Wed scored from the resulting free kick!

Brighton were not out of it yet and fought back hard for rest of the half and the start of the second, Leo Ulloa staying in the mix of all of it, battling for everything, giving away a few more fouls on the way. Still no goal but now a yellow card for Leo.

At half time Albion manager Gus Poyet had made what seemed a drastic change by taking off Brighton’s most consistent player midfield general Liam Bridcutt and bringing on Craig Mackail-Smith. This move seemed to have worked out as the battling continued and finally Albion got a break. Substitute Mackail-Smith’s tireless efforts paid off when he beat his man and drove the ball back into the box, it look as if he were clipped on the way, some said that if he went down he would have won a penalty; his integrity was rewarded as a the ball was only half cleared and Orlandi stotted it away.

Brighton were back in the game… for about a minute…

Shef-Wed kicked off, won a corner, curled it in and threw men at it. The in-swinger was just out of reach of Kuszczak in the Albion goal and it was bundled in behind him to restore the comfortable lead.

Leo Ulloa’s frustration was looking to boil over, the ref had more words and Gus quickly replaced him with Vicente before got a second yellow.

elabd-v-shefwed1The drama continued as Wednesday’s Danny Pugh savagely chopped down Albion Captain Inigo Calderon and the Albion players, fans and bench all called for a red but only got a yellow; This served to further incite the bench as the drama continued off the field, resulting in Albion first team coach and former Albion midfield chopper, Charlie Oatway and the Wednesday manager Dave Jones both being dismissed to the stand.

It was still end to end stuff with Vicente looking dangerous whenever the ball was at his feet but Brighton weren’t coming back, the game was lost and so was the unbeaten league run.

Some said Brighton were building to this, too much energy and not enough composure, there’s more building to do but Brighton can still make the play-offs!

Sheffield Wednesday 3-1

Andy Thorpe is a Brighton blogger and season-ticket holder covering Adam El-Abd and the rest of the Seagulls for You can follow Andy on Twitter: @4psta.

(Brighton and Hove Albion Images courtesy of Paul Hazlewood

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