Brighton’s eagerly awaited European bow fell flat as Greek heavyweights AEK Athens stunned Roberto de Zerbi’s men with a 3-2 Europa League group stage victory.
The Seagulls twice pegged AEK back after Djibril Sidibe and Mijat Gacinovic had taken advantage of Lewis Dunk’s absence through injury to score from first-half set pieces.
But, even with 13 minutes’ injury-time, Brighton had no answer after substitute Ezequiel Ponce converted a third after 84 minutes.
Niclas Eliasson was given too much time to cross after Tariq Lamptey had slipped as AEK launched a speedy counter-attack, Ponce applying the finish.
It meant Joao Pedro’s unique double ended up counting for nothing.
Evidently, it is not unusual for the video assistant referee to intervene to award penalties. Remarkably, this time it happened twice, on both occasions after the former Watford forward had gone down – he was booked for diving the first time.
Brighton’s £30 million record signing took both penalties, twice sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Brighton’s long journey
Just before the teams came out, the stadium announcer called on the Brighton fans to “drink it in”.
It is barely 25 years since the club were nearly relegated from the Football League, in the final match ever to be played at their beloved Goldstone Ground.
Where the club has advanced to is remarkable.
Thanks to the vision of owner Tony Bloom, who was watching from the stands, they have a superb stadium, a state-of-the-art training ground and one of the most attractive and progressive teams in the Premier League.
Now they have Europe, with the mouth-watering visit of former Champions League winners Ajax to come next month and Marseille to follow in December.
Chief executive Paul Barber is fond of saying Brighton are looking forward, not back but, despite the disappointment of defeat on the night, if ever there was a night for nostalgia, this was it.
Images of the past were played across the stadium – more, it felt, as a thank you to the fans who stood with the club in those dark days and are now getting their reward.
Dunk’s absence proves key
Sadly for Brighton, one of the key components in their rise from the Championship to the brink of the top four was missing.
Dunk must have known, like everyone else, that AEK’s two first-half goals were avoidable and had he been on the pitch rather than in the dug-out, Brighton would have had a far better chance of avoiding them.
Igor Julio was not solely at fault but the sight of the Brazilian, a £14.5m signing last summer, getting booked for dragging back Levi Garcia just inside the Brighton half as he feared the Trinidad and Tobago international was about the run away from him was further evidence of what Dunk’s absence meant.
On his full debut, on-loan Barcelona star Ansu Fati – whose last European appearance was against Manchester United in this competition last year – drew an excellent first-half save out of Cican Stankovic.
When the game was still there for Brighton to win, Joao Pedro disappointed in not completing his hat-trick after beating the offside trap and running clear but firing his shot straight at Stankovic.
Pascal Gross had Brighton’s best opportunity to level for a third time but again, the AEK keeper was equal to the challenge.
Brighton & Hove Albion
- 6MilnerSubstituted forLampteyat 55′minutes
- 29van HeckeBooked at 76mins
- 3dos Santos de PauloBooked at 47mins
- 30EstupiñánBooked at 66mins
- 11GilmourSubstituted forBuonanotteat 86′minutes
- 31Ansu Fati
- 22MitomaSubstituted forAdingraat 86′minutes
- 9João PedroSubstituted forWelbeckat 82′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 29SidibéBooked at 47mins
- 4SzymanskiBooked at 67mins
- 24MitoglouBooked at 66mins
- 28HajisafiSubstituted forMohammadiat 60′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 5N Amrabat
- 13PinedaSubstituted forMantalosat 79′minutesBooked at 90mins
- 11AraújoSubstituted forZuberat 68′minutes
- 8GacinovicBooked at 72minsSubstituted forEliassonat 79′minutes
- 7GarcíaSubstituted forPonceat 68′minutesBooked at 69mins
- Kristo Tohver
Match ends, Brighton and Hove Albion 2, AEK Athens 3.
Second Half ends, Brighton and Hove Albion 2, AEK Athens 3.
Attempt blocked. Jan Paul van Hecke (Brighton and Hove Albion) header from the right side of the six yard box is blocked.
Corner, Brighton and Hove Albion. Conceded by Djibril Sidibé.
Attempt blocked. Jan Paul van Hecke (Brighton and Hove Albion) right footed shot from outside the box is blocked. Assisted by Solly March.
Milad Mohammadi (AEK Athens) is shown the yellow card.
Offside, AEK Athens. Damian Szymanski tries a through ball, but Niclas Eliasson is caught offside.
Ansu Fati (Brighton and Hove Albion) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Foul by Petros Mantalos (AEK Athens).
Petros Mantalos (AEK Athens) is shown the yellow card.
Foul by Tariq Lamptey (Brighton and Hove Albion).
Niclas Eliasson (AEK Athens) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Attempt missed. Solly March (Brighton and Hove Albion) right footed shot from outside the box is high and wide to the right. Assisted by Jan Paul van Hecke.
Attempt missed. Danny Welbeck (Brighton and Hove Albion) header from the centre of the box is close, but misses the top right corner.
Attempt saved. Pascal Groß (Brighton and Hove Albion) right footed shot from outside the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Facundo Buonanotte.
Danny Welbeck (Brighton and Hove Albion) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Foul by Danny Welbeck (Brighton and Hove Albion).
Steven Zuber (AEK Athens) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Corner, Brighton and Hove Albion. Conceded by Damian Szymanski.
Corner, Brighton and Hove Albion. Conceded by Cican Stankovic.