Late strike tees up Brighton play-off push
Brighton & Hove Albion's Vicente comes off the bench to send Seagulls soaring
After a tight game with few clear cut chances, a thunderous free-kick from Brighton's Spanish talisman provided the perfect platform for a late bid for play-off glory.
In a tense encounter on a wet South Coast, Brighton & Hove Albion were the big winners in a day of Championship upsets. Tuesday night's game against fellow play-off hopefuls Blackburn Rovers now assumes even more significance. A win for Gus Poyet's men could take them into 6th place and importantly for Seagulls followers, just four points behind arch rivals Crystal Palace.
Brighton were made to work hard for the three points, by a Hull City team enjoying resurgence under Stave Bruce. The Tigers were thwarted in no small part by the brilliance of Tomasz Kuszczak in the Albion goal, who made three brilliant saves in the second half, one a fantastic dive to his right to keep out a fierce cross-shot by the influential Elmohamady.
The first half belonged to Brighton, with Andrea Orlandi and Dean Hammond in midfield linking well with the Craig Mackail-Smith and Leonardo Ulloa up front. The Argentinian, making his home league debut, showed some good touches and Gus Poyet will be hoping that his presence will bring out the best in Mackail-Smith, who has not really fired since his move from Peterborough. There are rumblings at The Amex about the effectiveness of the Scottish international, but everyone at the club is hoping that a return to form will come just in time for the final games.
Poyet has made some inspired signings, not least of which in his defensive dealings. Albion now boast three players in the back four with Champions League experience, in Wayne Bridge, Bruno Salter and Kuszczak. The recent addition of Matthew Upson, on loan from Stoke, means that a relatively recent England defensive pairing is being replicated on the South Coast.
One player to escape the limelight among the international superstars, is Adam El Abd, a product of the prolific Albion youth system. He can also now boast an international pedigree, having being called up for Egypt, a legacy from his father's nationality.
His presence in the back four over the past couple of seasons has been crucial, and he continued his fine form with some crucial defensive blocks, including one magnificent sliding tackle to deny Robert Koren in the first half.
The game continued to ebb and flow as the interval approached, with Orlandi going close, once from a fiercely driven free kick from wide on the right that David Stockdale did well to tip over. The break came with Albion satisfied with the work done, but needing to convert their usual possession and passing excellence into clearer cut chances.
Hull resumed with new vigour and Robbie Brady was the architect of their resurgence, as the rain continued to fall on the Amex pitch. He teased Bruno and Bridge to create chances for his team mates, but Kuszczak was always there, a huge presence in the Brighton goal. He has been an absolute revelation this season, a calm and comforting barrier behind the back four.
Liam Bridcutt had his work cut out in from of Albion's back four, but continued in his usual majestic manner, constantly denying the Hull midfield space. Bridcutt is the jewel in Poyet's crown, a diminutive figure but packing a huge punch. He seems to defy gravity at times, leaping to deny taller players and his timing and composure when the ball is on the ground is a joy to watch.
Picked up after being released by Chelsea, Bridcutt is the first player on Poyet's teamsheet and has been instrumental in the development of the club over the past three years. He embraces the manager's need for controlled possession football but is not afraid to put his foot in when required.
As the second half wore on, Hull seemed impenetrable. Brighton's attacks were foundering against the solid defensive work of Paul McShane and company and Ulloa was beginning to feel the pace in his introduction to the hurly burly world of Championship football.
Poyet had another ace up his sleeve however, in the form of the enigmatic Spaniard Vicente Rodriguez. A man who, just a few years ago, had been talked about as one of the best players in the world, has endured a frustrating time at The Amex.
Injury, a frustrating companion in the past, has again blighted his season and supporters have been starved of his flair so far this term. His introduction after 57 minutes was greeted with great enthusiasm by another bumper crowd, although this was tempered with trepidation over his fragile body. After ten minutes of feeling his way into the game, he exploded into life with a magnificent pass inside the Hull right back, to release the rampaging Bridge. His driven cross was cleared to Orlandi on the edge of the penalty area, but he failed to capitalise on the superb build-up, instead blazing the ball over the bar and into the North Stand.
Vicente continued to grow into the game and his jinks and turns were starting to frustrate the Hull midfield. He was starting to draw fouls and his link play with the surging runs of Bridge was bringing hope to the Albion faithful. On the right, the introduction of Will Buckley put yet more pressure on the defence and following a typically surging, jinxing, mazy dribble, the ball fell to the feet of Orlandi, who was unceremoniously bundled to the ground just outside the box.
David Lopez stood over the ball alongside Vicente, but the hushed crowd only wanted one man to strike the ball. Stockdale assembled his five-man wall and shuffled across the goal, ready to receive the ball. Just to the left of the wall, El Abd was taking up a position and as Vicente strode up the ball, he lunged into the wall, disturbing their carefully prepared line-up. The Spaniard's sweetly struck shot arrowed into the gap expertly created and Stockdale could only parry the ball as it exploded into the net. Pandemonium ensued as crowd and players alike saluted the genius of Vicente.
With seven minutes to go, there was still time for Hull to get back into the game and just a minute after the deadlock was broken, they were awarded a free kick in an almost identical place. Without a resident genius however, Kuszczak was not required and nor was the services of row Z, as the ball ballooned to safety behind the goal.
The final whistle blew and Brighton celebrated three points that took them to within two of the play-offs. After the game, Poyet talked about the risks that need to be taken if his team are to push on further. Brighton's style of play lends itself to a measured build-up and careful creation of chances, but a more direct style, combined with the incisive trickery of Vicente, could be the decisive factor.
Next at The Amex are Blackburn Rovers, nursing play-off ambitions of their own. Another massive game for The Seagulls beckons and who would bet against another victory? Poyet's jigsaw is far from complete, but new pieces are being added all the time.
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