Roberto De Zerbi congratulated his Brighton players in the dressing room for their performance despite losing 3-2 to AEK Athens on their European debut.
Despite dominating the ball and dictating the shape of the game in wet and difficult conditions at the Amex Stadium, Brighton were undone by an AEK side who made the best of what little they created and were clinical when their moments came.
First, the right-back Djibril Sidibe dashed into the box unmarked at a corner and flew into a superb diving header that nestled in the corner.
FT: Defeat in our #UEL opener. 😩
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) September 21, 2023
It was a lead they twice should have doubled when striker Levi Garcia went through on goal, first denied by goalkeeper Jason Steele then sliding the ball beyond the post as two glorious chances were wasted.
Brighton hit back through a penalty from Joao Pedro after a VAR check, the same means by which they levelled for a second time after the break. In between, Mijat Gacinovic had restored AEK’s lead, sliding in at a free-kick to finish from near the penalty spot.
Brighton were missing the injured Lewis Dunk in defence and his absence was felt again when substitute Ezequiel Ponce was given space on the counter-attack to win it for the Greek champions late on.
“We conceded three goals,” said De Zerbi. “Two goals in set pieces and one incredible goal, the third. We made some mistakes in the (final third) of the pitch, for example the chance of Joao Pedro in the second half, or the chance for Igor in the first half. But in terms of quality of play we played a very good game, I think.
“I’m really proud for the performance. I think we showed not the right experience, or maybe not the same experience as AEK Athens.
“But for the rest I think we played with personality and with the right attitude. We controlled the game, we dominated the game. And we are sad for the result.
“We are sad because we couldn’t make happy our fans, ourselves, our club. But we have to analyse the performance and the performance was good.
“We can learn. We have to learn. We can improve, but it’s difficult to accept this defeat. I congratulated the players 10 minutes ago, because I can’t be happy when we win at Old Trafford and sad today if the performances are both good performances.
“We have to know, and we knew before the game, that AEK had two situations where they could score; set-pieces and counter-attack. And when we’re defending set-pieces against this team, we have to be more focused, more with the right attitude, more smart to defend the set-pieces.”
De Zerbi confirmed that Dunk and striker Evan Ferguson had been ruled out of contention earlier on Thursday.
“Dunk couldn’t play because after the game with Man United he felt a problem,” he added. “This afternoon Evan had a temperature, he is ill.”
AEK manager Matias Almeyda reflected on a win which he hoped will help cement his team’s reputation as a serious European force this season.
“We work on the basis of playing a type of football based on team work,” he said. “I live my life the way I manage the team. I like to respect people and I like to be respected. We want to be respected in Europe and we wanted to get a result to gain that respect.
“We have been working together for over a year. We came here in order to play our usual game. The opposition on a number of occasions forced us to play a different kind of game. But it’s spirit of the team, a fighting spirit, and that’s what we have managed to achieve. To keep on fighting.”