Brighton and Hove Albion may have slipped to ninth in the Championship following defeat at Hillsborough on Tuesday but their chances of sneaking into the play-off positions remained very much alive.
Their opposition, Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough, were fourteen points clear of the relegation zone but well adrift of the play-offs.
Brighton were obviously the team who needed the points more, but this was far from obvious in their performance. Boro challenged every ball, every call; they pressured high and remained disciplined in a compact formation; ultimately, they frustrated Oscar Garcia’s talented team.
After the 2-0 defeat at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday, Jesse Lingard spoke of his confidence that goals would come despite not finding the net so far in his time at the Amex. He told BBC Sussex ‘it will eventually come’, and within four minutes, that moment appeared to be sooner rather than later.
Right back Bruno Saltor slipped the ball behind the Boro defence for Will Buckley to latch on to; the 24-year-old pulled his cross back to the feet of Lingard but he failed to hit the target. The Manchester United loanee missed a number of chances and was frustrated by the impressive Dimitrious Konstantopoulos in goal for the away side.
It seemed as if Karanka’s team accepted they would struggle to break down the usually strong Albion defence and thus were resigned to testing Kuszczak from distance.
Luke Williams received the ball twenty yards out and looked to bend a curling shot into the corner of Kuszczak’s net, but the big Pole comfortably pushed to safety.
Moments later, an almost identical chance. This time it was Lee Tomlin’s who let rip. A little more fizz, accompanied with a wicked bend saw Kuszczak at full stretch to once again palm out of harms reach.
The half-time whistle was met with a chorus of boos by the home fans, but they were lifted soon into the second half with a sumptuous move involving Stephen Ward and Lingard.
Jake Foster-Caskey squared the ball to Ward at the edge of the area, he played a first-time through ball with a back heel into the path of Lingard, but the forward’s curling shot beat both the Boro keeper and the post.
Garcia recognised the need to inject some energy into his lacklustre side; enter Kazenga LuaLua. The 23-year-old brought much-needed pace and creativity; being involved in two chances within moments of his introduction.
Albion began to look slightly more threatening and a goal finally came in the 65th minute; but it was to the joy of the travelling away fans as Albert Adomah netted for the third time in two games.
Albion’s ever-reliable captain, Gordon Greer, was muscled off the ball by Danny Graham; the striker drove into the box and squared to Adomah, who scored his twelfth goal of the season as he tapped in from close ranging, holding off the efforts of Ward to clear.
So often the hero for Brighton, Leonardo Ulloa was certainly the villain on this occasion. Having already wasted a clear goal-scoring chance with a soft header, he then skied a penalty over the crossbar.
A mistimed challenge on substitute Solly March lead to the referee pointing straight to the spot. Ulloa stepped up but blazed his shot over the crossbar, much to the dismay of the Seagulls’ supporters.
Garcia played his final card by throwing March on for Rohan Ince; he risked the protection of his defence in order to search for the equaliser. The risk failed to pay off.
With five minutes to go, the game was out of Albion’s reach. Danny Graham doubled Middlesbrough’s lead with another simple finish after being played in by Grant Leadbitter following another mistake from Greer.
Defeat meant Oscar Garcia lost three games in a row for the first time in his reign at the Amex. He fails to discount his side’s chances of reaching the play-offs but it is slowly ebbing away from the Spaniard.
Albion: Kuszczak; Bruno, Greer, Upson, Ward; Ince (March 72), Andrews; Lopez (LuaLua 58), Lingard, Buckley (Foster-Caskey 33); Ulloa
Subs not used: Ankergren, Dunk, Calderon, Rodriguez
Boro: Konstantopoulos; Varga, Gibson, Omeruo (Chalobah 79), Friend; Whitehead, Leadbitter; Tomlin (Butterfield 60), Williams, Adomah; Graham
Subs not used: Steele, Atkinson, Morris, Ledesma, Kamara
Goal(s): Adomah, Graham
Man of the Match: Danny Graham
Written by Tom Roddy