Manchester City had already sewn up the Premier League title, their fifth in six seasons; a three-peat complete. They have a couple of finals coming up that you might have heard about. So what was their motivation here?
Brighton had confirmed their place in next season’s Europa League – unless you believed that a 17-goal swing in two defeats against City here and at Aston Villa on Sunday was plausible. They had an outside chance of overhauling Liverpool for fifth place, although that would not have brought any tangible reward. Same question. What was their motivation?
The answer for City, perhaps, was to showcase their winning mentality, to maintain momentum for the historic challenge ahead. But, really, it boiled down to professional pride. Just as it did for Brighton, the desire to put on a show – even after all of the shows that both clubs have staged during seasons they would justifiably describe as epic.
What a game this was, the first half in particular a rip-roaring spectacle, the thrills seemingly every minute. It was when Julio Enciso’s top-corner firecracker cancelled out Phil Foden’s opener for City. What a goal it was from Enciso, the explosive climax to a patient and probing move.
Brighton carried the fight to City, perhaps more than any other club have done this season. They had 20 shots at the visitors’ goal – no opponent has attempted more over the campaign.
There was a moment in the 72nd minute when Pep Guardiola came on to the pitch to return the ball for a City free-kick. He applauded with his hands above his head before sweeping it across with his left foot, the years rolled back. He exchanged a high five with his Brighton counterpart, Roberto De Zerbi, the respect between the pair obvious.
Guardiola was all smiles then. It would be a different story on 79 minutes when Erling Haaland had a goal chalked off by the VAR for a shirt tug on Levi Colwill. When the replay was shown on the big screen, Guardiola would rage at the fourth official. He ended up with a yellow card and a stinging post-match complaint, the gist of it being that if that was a foul by Haaland, then every action against him ought to be the same. It was not easy to agree with Guardiola; the pull by Haaland looked clear.
The occasion was shaped by the love-in between Guardiola and De Zerbi, the former having described the latter on Tuesday as “one of the most influential managers in the last 20 years.” Wow. Guardiola would be effusive in his praise of De Zerbi after the game and for good reason.
What Guardiola likes about De Zerbi is his fearlessness, how his team risk the ball at the back to spring forward, their possession, their chance creation. It was stamped all over this latest performance, Guardiola forced to think creatively to have City in contention.
Guardiola started Rodri in central defence alongside John Stones – to counter Brighton’s non-typical No 9s, Danny Welbeck and Enciso – with Rico Lewis at left-back; under orders, of course, to step up and inside. Guardiola wanted comfort on the ball and superior numbers in a flexible midfield set-up.
Brighton did what they normally do – quick, choreographed movements; all highly technical – and it was a fascinating, frenetic watch, the chances flowing from the outset.
Foden was a blur of silky left-footed touches and sharp turns, although it was with his unfavoured right foot that he found the breakthrough after Riyad Mahrez had released Haaland. The City centre-forward had previously blown two chances that he would have expected to score but now he passed to Foden, who danced inside and shot, a little scruffily. Jan Paul van Hecke might have cleared on the line. Instead he diverted the ball in.
By then, the excellent Welbeck had bent a free-kick onto the crossbar with Stefan Ortega well beaten and it was not alone along Brighton’s early efforts. They kept on coming, from all angles and at speed.
Facundo Buonanotte exploded past two City challenges to work Ortega and then Enciso detonated his 25-yard screamer. He cut across the ball with his right boot; there was dip and swerve but overall just purity. Enciso could not have placed the ball more perfectly had he stood underneath the crossbar and used his hands. Welbeck had the ball in the net on 44 minutes only to be flagged offside and Foden headed inches off target at the other end. It was breathless.
It was a pity that Foden was forced off at the start of the second half; he had been in the mood. Ilkay Gündogan lashed past the far post while Foden’s replacement, Cole Palmer, blasted at Jason Steele. Kaoru Mitoma flickered for Brighton while Pervis Estupiñán would zing a shot just wide. Then, there was Haaland, smiling in celebration – yet again – after Palmer had beaten the substitute, Joël Veltman, to cross. It would soon be overtaken by exasperation.