Despite twice coming from behind, Brighton were narrowly defeated on their European debut, falling 3-2 to AEK Athens at the Amex Stadium.
After their 3-1 victory at Old Trafford against Manchester United last time out, AEK swiftly pulled Brighton back to reality.
The Seagulls, who 26 years ago were on the verge of going out of business as a team, made history this evening on the south coast, although the absence of injured captain Lewis Dunk was telling.
It was a hard lesson learned on the night for Brighton as they consistently failed to deal with AEK's danger on the break. As they sorely missed Dunk's defensive leadership abilities.
Story Of The Game:
Only four of the players who began at Old Trafford were kept in the starting lineup by Roberto De Zerbi following Brighton's emphatic victory over Manchester United at the weekend. Igor Julio, a Brazilian defender, made his debut in place of Dunk in the centre of defence. Ansu Fati, who has been on loan from Barcelona until the end of the season, also got his first start.
In what was an absolutely thrilling match Brighton got off to a decent start and went close on a couple of occasions but a AEK corner, resulted in a strong Djibril Sidibe's header going past Jason Steele in the Brighton goal on the 11th minute.
Brighton then started to push forward and get shots on goal that saw AEK keeper Cican Stankovic stay busy but then Brighton drew level on the half hour mark as Joao Pedro was brought down and after a VAR check scored the resulting penalty but 10 minutes later the Seagulls were undone again from another AEK set piece as a nice Mijat Gacinovic finish saw the visitors retake the lead.
AEK's defence was far from flawless though as they conceded not one but two penalties following some shoddy play. Ehsan Haji Safi and Jens Jonsson fouled Joao Pedro in nearly identical incidents in both halves, and spot kicks were awarded following a VAR review. Joao Pedro scored twice as he brought De Zerbi's team, who are the second-favorite team to win the tournament behind fellow Premier League team Liverpool level.
Brighton thought they could sense a late snatch and grab coming as there was 13 minutes of extra time added on as a result of a lengthy delay for treatment of AEK defender Ehsan Haji Safi, who had been involved in a head-on collision with Jan-Paul van Hecke.
But Brighton's overcommitment cost them, as the winner came in the other direction and stunned the Amex Stadium into silence, just as Brighton were getting into their best rhythm to try and steal it late on. As in the 84th minutes, Ezequiel Ponce stunned the home crowd by slipping in the game-winning goal from Niclas Eliasson's assist to decide the game in favour of the Greek team. As AEK Athens broke a 46-year streak without defeating an English team.
It's a tough loss for Roberto De Zerbi's team to accept after their recent string of four victories in the league. Their last ten competitive games have had goals from both teams.
Brighton were unsuccessful as Greek powerhouses AEK Athens provided a shock to de Zerbi's team, but given the path they and their supporters have taken to get here over the past ten years, De Zerbi will be hopeful he can turn things around.
Player Of The Match: Ezequiel Ponce.
Ponce did really well when he came on the pitch, causing Brighton problems as well as doing his team a massive justice with defensive duties when the Seagulls were pushing for a winning.
But, most importantly, he did the hard work for the winning goal, getting into a good position up the pitch then making sure he won the header, then turned on the burners to get into box to receive the pass to calmly finish into the bottom right corner to break Brighton hearts.
"We made three or four mistakes when we conceded the two goals from set pieces and I can’t explain their third goal. We were unlucky, I think the result is unfair but we must accept it," he said.
"I think we played well. I’m pleased with the performance, we played with personality. Perhaps we don’t have the right experience, we have younger players and this can sometimes cost us but I have to focus on the performance because I can’t explain the result and the way we conceded three goals tonight.
"I told the players that I’m proud of their performance. It was an historic day for our fans, I’m sorry for them. In the end, we can decide how we play but we can’t decide the result."