Amid Moises Caicedo transfer drama, Brighton’s rebuild shows no signs of struggle in victory over Liverpool

BRIGHTON — With a little over 24 hours to go before kickoff against the holders, Roberto de Zerbi had an almighty spanner thrown into the works. Moises Caicedo, who had missed just two games this season, would be unavailable, having been sent home for a period of reflection after publicly requesting a transfer in light of Arsenal’s £60 million offer for his services.

The intention had been to start with two center forwards, as Brighton ultimately did, but Caicedo was to do what he has done as well as any midfielder in the Premier League, dictating the rhythm of the contest and disrupting opposition attacks. Even for a club that are used to being disrupted by the Premier League’s monied elite, this could well have been a discombobulating development. The foundation for Brighton’s exceptional season has been a midfield that would be the envy of most of Europe. No team can rustle up a Rodri replicant just like that.

That is the context in which to view Brighton’s assertive, irresistible 2-1 victory over Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round, one earned for them when their Marc Cucurella replacement delivered the cross and their Leandro Trossard replacement delivered the moment of genius. Kaoru Mitoma would find himself at the bottom of a jubilant scrum as De Zerbi, the man who had arrived midseason following Graham Potter’s defection to Chelsea, made plans to hold on to the injury-time lead. Whatever the time scale, Brighton seem capable of conducting the requisite reshuffle.

Caicedo’s absence brought with it something of a restructure to the Brighton midfield, what has largely been a 4-2-3-1 under De Zerbi morphing into a 4-4-2 with Danny Welbeck partnering the livewire Evan Ferguson up top. And yet the hosts seemed utterly at ease without one of their best players, dictating the midfield possession battle, crafting the better chances and keeping Cody Gakpo and substitute Darwin Nunez quelled even without impressing their manager, who “did not like the game.” His assessment was less glowing than his defeated counterpart. Jurgen Klopp was right to note that this was not as poor a performance as Liverpool had delivered in their 3-0 loss here a fortnight ago, but it seemed something of a stretch to say, “this time no one would have been surprised if we had won.” Liverpool had been second best for more of this contest than they were in the ascendancy.

No wonder, when they were always playing catch up down the flanks. Mitoma has turned the departure of Trossard into irrelevance, for all that the Belgian has made a bright early impression at Arsenal, Brighton have earned up to £26m and further cleared a pathway for the Japan forward, whose first touch left Trent Alexander-Arnold twisted. Better defenders than the Liverpool right-back would have no answer to the jinking and jiving of Mitoma, who later in the first half left Joe Gomez flat on the deck before curling a shot into Alisson‘s arms.

Alexander-Arnold had earlier made a crucial block on the line after Solly March had driven through what approximated a Liverpool midfield and crossed low for Evan Ferguson. Naby Keita‘s drifts to the right flank might have opened up different spaces for Mohamed Salah, but it left Stefan Bajcetic and Thiago overawed when Brighton won the ball back. Liverpool’s engine room has had enough troubles at full strength this season, and it seemed curious that Klopp should opt to take one player out of it to build attacks.

In doing so, he did, however, free up Salah to drift into the sort of pockets from which he could create danger. In a way he did not in past seasons, the Egyptian did need plenty of chances to make an impact, seeing Lewis Dunk clear off the line before he rolled wide of Jason Steele‘s far post when one on one. He would ultimately have a sizeable hand in Liverpool’s opener. Holding the ball until the right moment, his slipped pass found Harvey Elliott, a low drive flicking off Steele’s palm and into the net.

Brighton were not cowed and were soon level with a goal utterly against the grain of the elegant football they had served up at the Amex. A corner was cleared as far as Tariq Lamptey, whose underpowered daisy cutter still came at Dunk too fast for the captain to get out of the way. Alisson was left stranded as the ball rolled beyond his right leg.

Liverpool reestablished themselves early in the first half but at best looked like scrapping their way to a replay, all thundering tackles that at best stretched the boundaries of legality. It was hard to believe that Ibrahima Konate avoided a second yellow when his shove on Alexis MacAllister was deemed to be fair play by David Coote, who seemed to be in a generous mood when he handed a yellow to Fabinho for a clattering foul on Ferguson, who would exit soon after.

The visitors almost got what they wanted but in added time Mitoma delivered a stunning winner. Lifting the ball into the air with his first touch off Pervis Estupinan’s cross. He raised his right boot, convincing Joe Gomez he was about to pull the trigger. Instead, a delicate flick brought with it a different angle with which to unleash his strike. From such close range, Alisson never stood a chance.

For the third year in succession, the holders were out in the fourth round. Suddenly Liverpool find themselves in a deep quandary, the team who took every trophy down to the last few kicks of the ball in 2022 now left with just one competition they might win in the next four months. Brighton, meanwhile, have their sights set firmly on the sort of tangible top-tier prize that their rise has not yet brought for them. 

“We’re the famous Brighton and we’re off to Wembley,” came the cry from the Amex. 

It will take quite the side to stop them from getting there.

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