Brighton aiming to beat Arsenal by playing the right way
Brighton host Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round - can they cause another upset?
When Jack Wilshere powered in the winner for Arsenal against Swansea on Wednesday, he set up a mouthwatering meeting of minds later in the month.
On January 26th, Arsene Wenger's much-maligned squad of stars will journey to The American Express Community Stadium to play Gus Poyet's Brighton & Hove Albion, a team built around the philosophy of slick passing football.
One-and-a-half seasons into life at a new stadium, hopes are high that the gospel according to Poyet is starting to convince the disciples.
He has assembled a multi-national squad boasting no less than four players with Champions League experience. At the start of this season, Tomasz Kuszczak was lured away from Manchester United and the big Pole has been a huge presence between the sticks. Wayne Bridge at left-back (on loan from Manchester City) and Bruno Saltor (from Valencia) give pedigree at full-back to complement local boy Adam El Abd and the dependable Gordon Greer at centre-back.
Quality back-up is vital in these days of non-stop football and Inigo Calderon, Marcos Painter and Lewis Dunk are able to slot in to the defensive unit as required. Such is Gus Poyet's commitment to measured, passing football, that most of Albion's attacks start with the ball being bowled out to one of the back four. No pressure-relieving hoofball from this team.
In front of the back four lurks the scampering, tough-tackling and magnificent Liam Bridcutt. The former Chelsea trainee, prised away from Stamford Bridge on a free transfer nearly three years ago, is now the almost unstoppable fulcrum for Albion's creativity. He tackles with timing and poise, heads the ball like a centre forward, and distributes the ball with intelligence. There is a lot of footballer packed into his diminutive frame.
Dean Hammond and Andrew Crofts provide options in the centre of midfield, both capable of helping the defence then popping up in the opposition penalty area. Both previously played for Brighton, before leaving when the club was in League One, to further their careers at Southampton and Norwich City respectively. They have returned as more rounded players, eager to add their experience to Gus Poyet's vision.
Out wide, Albion possess two of the most potent attacking threats in The Championship. The blistering pace of Kazenga Lua Lua has been utilised mainly off the bench recently and his ability to surge past defenders in the latter part of games has been invaluable. Will Buckley, bought from Watford as Brighton prepared for life at Falmer, immediately secured his place as an Albion legend, with both goals in the first league game at the new stadium. His second came in the 97th minute, a cool finish after his pace took him away from the Doncaster Rovers defence. He made a habit of injury-time winners last season and Buckley-time is as anticipated at Brighton, as Fergie-time at Old Trafford.
Poyet is not afraid to look abroad for additions to his squad and Spaniards David Lopez and Andrea Orlandi have added more options. Both have found transition to life in The Championship a little difficult, but recent performances suggest that the gamble is starting to pay off.
Talking of Spaniards, Brighton's other Spanish import is perhaps the most enigmatic. As little as eight short years ago, the name of Vicente Rodriguez was included in debates concerning the greatest players on the planet. Horrendous luck with injury limited his appearances, both for Valencia and the national team, but despite this, the football world was stunned when he was persuaded to swap The Mestalla for a spell on the South Coast of England. His 17 appearances last season gave us glimpses of that talent and his goals and visionary play excited the crowds. In one memorable cameo against Derby County, a mazy dribble left defenders floundering in his wake and he ended with a thunderous shot that left the crossbar quivering for minutes afterwards. Injury has again blighted his season but he is now fit again and eager to repay the club's faith in him. If he stays fit, Vicente could mean the difference between a playful flirt with the play-offs and a full on affair with promotion.
Up front, record signing Craig Mackail-Smith hasn't quite reproduced the form that persuaded Gus Poyet to part with £2.5 million of Chairman Tony Bloom's money. Ashley Barnes has weighed in with some vital goals in support of Mackail-Smith's non-stop running, but fans aren't quite convinced just yet. Stephen Dobbie was brought in from Swansea City with high hopes, but again, the jury is out. A possible transfer may cut short his agony.
Just 24 hours ago, Poyet again raided the Spanish League, this time for Almeira striker Leonardo Ulloa, known as The Cyclone. Twenty-nine goals in Spain's equivalent of the Championship says he knows where the goal is, and he has arrived just in time to (hopefully) put to bed the theory that, come the snow and cold in February, the overseas players will not be up for the challenge.
So, Brighton are in pretty good shape and despite a wobble in the League in December, are tucked in nicely, just outside the play-offs. But can they beat Arsenal? Logic dictates that the Premier League side will triumph, but these are turbulent times for Arsenal and an upcoming fixture pile-up for the Gunners could play into Brighton's hands.
Arsenal are a good side but by no means unbeatable and The Seagulls must fancy their chances against the fragile confidence of the Gunners. Either way, it will be a fascinating meeting between two teams committed to playing the game the right way. On their day, both sides are capable of getting a result but who knows, the emotional energy provided by what is sure to be Albion's largest home crowd since the heady days of the late 1970s may be enough to take the Seagulls past the Gunners and into the 5th round of the FA Cup.
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