Brighton 1 Manchester United 0
The Manchester United supporters were keen to remind everybody just who was going to Wembley for the FA Cup final. Their club’s victory over Brighton in the semi-final on the Sunday before last had framed this Premier League rematch. Brighton’s script involved revenge because it had been a brutally hard defeat after that sudden death penalty shoot-out.
It was a helter-skelter game – again. Both teams played the way that they wanted to play; Brighton with their razor sharp pass-and-move, shapes shifting constantly, United punching hard on the transitions.
There were big chances at both ends, fine saves from the goalkeepers, especially Brighton’s Jason Steele, vehement protests against the decisions of the referee, Andre Marriner, and the sense that you could not take your eyes off any part of the field.
And at the very last, there was the breakthrough, the one that Brighton had craved, which they thought might elude them. There was chaos in the United area after a corner, David De Gea finishing by pushing away a Moises Caicedo shot. But then Marriner was alerted by the VAR to a possible handball by Luke Shaw. Penalty, Roberto De Zerbi, the Brighton manager, could not watch. But up stepped Alexis Mac Allister to score. It was some finale to a breathless evening.”
It was difficult to ignore the pay-back plot line despite De Zerbi’s comment in his programme notes that Wembley had been “far from our thoughts.” On the next page, the Brighton chief executive, Paul Barber, wrote of having “an early opportunity to avenge” the semi-final. It felt like a more accurate mood reflector.
The Wembley game was a classic, despite the lack of goals. The requirement for penalties then elevated the spectacle. It was fast and furious here as well, battle lines drawn early on, particularly by De Zerbi, who set up as he did in the semi-final; two strikers, licensed to drop in and attempt to draw the United centre-halves, and two wingers, who were even higher than in the previous meeting.
Kaoru Mitoma sparkled on the left at the outset, so explosive with his quick feet and darting runs. He had Brighton’s big early chance when he seized upon a loose Victor Lindelöf pass which had been intended for Aaron Wan-Bissaka to burst cleanthrough. He hammered goalwards and David de Gea took the ball full in the face. It went down as a brave block. Once again, it was Mitoma versus Aaron Wan-Bissaka, the former wanting a penalty on 19 minutes when he felt slight contact. The award would have been harsh. Earlier Mitoma had pushed a shot past the far post after a mesmeric dribble.
There was also a fine Wan-Bissaka sliding challenge on him inside the area. All of this within the first half of the first period.
Another key match-up was Marcus Rashford versus Moises Caicedo on the United left, De Zerbi having made the surprise decision to start his holding midfielder at right-back. Rashford radiated menace. He was in the mood to run through his tricks, the nutmegs and the lightning swerves. When he beat Caicedo on the outside in the 28th minute, it was too easy. From an angle, he banged for the near post. Steele made a smart save.
It was feisty, Caicedo leaving something on Rashford before the interval; Casemiro booked for taking out Alexis Mac Allister as he broke. And it was exciting from minute one, which was when Antony blew a gilt-edged one-on-one after being sent through by Bruno Fernandes, guiding wide of the post.
United’s other clear first-half chance was created by Fred for Anthony Martial on 39 minutes – again Steele got his positioning right to save – while Casemiro had previously headed high. At the other end, Brighton could point to efforts from Julio Enciso and Facundo Buonanotte, who started ahead of Solly March, which were narrowly off target.
Brighton’s has been a historic campaign, made even more enjoyable by De Zerbi’s boldness, the cut and thrust of his football. It is surely worth restating that since the start of it, the club have lost a manager and most of the coaching staff, important recruitment personnel plus a clutch of stars – Marc Cucurella, Yves Bissouma, Neal Maupay, Leandro Trossard. And they have got better.
Mitoma’s duel with Wan-Bissaka crackled back to life at the start of the second half, the United man continuing to get his distances and positioning right. There was the moment when Mitoma, released by Danny Welbeck’s tackle on Fernandes, had his marker back-pedalling in the area. But Wan-Bissaka knew what he was doing. Mitoma’s eventual shot was weak.
The game was rarely too far from boiling point and Brighton came to nurse grievances, Casemiro treading a fine line when he fouled Mac Allister again.
De Zerbi had sunk to his knees after Mitoma sliced inside and went to ground with Wan-Bissaka in attendance – there was not enough in it for a penalty – while at the other end, Fernandes worked Steele with a rasping drive. Then came Shaw’s aberration in added time. Mac Allister stepped up amid the pressure and smashed his spot-kick into the top left corner. – Guardian