Never has a moment so absurd been so important. This match turned on a freak goal that was almost entirely accidental, and would be impossible to recreate. With it the whole Championship season may turn too.
With nine minutes left here Brighton were 1-0 up and in complete control. They were pulling towards a four-point lead over Newcastle United. With just 12 games left this season Brighton could start to dream of their lucrative future, after so many near misses over the years.
Then Newcastle forced a corner and what followed could be a decisive moment in the history of both clubs. Matt Ritchie’s corner was punched out by David Stockdale and found its way to Christian Atsu at the edge of the box. He skewed a shot so badly that it was flying towards the corner flag. There stood Mohamed Diame, facing away from goal, and when the ball came at him his only reaction was to duck.
But the ball hit the outside of Diame’s right boot and looped up into the air. The only unguarded part of the net was just beyond Fikayo Tomori’s desperate head, and that was where the ball ended up. This the decisive spell in one of the highest-stakes games of the season, and it was swung by an unplannable fluke.
It was a moment so painful for Brighton, so giddying for Newcastle, that there was only one possible winner after that. Newcastle were transformed and in the last normal minute Matt Ritchie, poor all game, raked a brilliant diagonal out to Christian Atsu on the left. He wriggled into space and pulled a cross back into the box. Ayoze Perez, on as a substitute, was unmarked in the box and slotted home.
And all of a sudden, rather than four points behind, Newcastle were top, two points clear of a stunned Brighton. More importantly, they are eight points ahead of Huddersfield Town in third. They go to the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday evening and another win there will turn that number to 11. The momentum is all theirs.
Which is surprising given that for so much of this evening, it felt like an example of why Brighton were going to win the Championship and finally make their way into the Premier League. They were not at their best tonight but they still played with power and control, putting the squeeze on their anxious hosts.
In Sam Baldock and Glenn Murray they had two real threats up front, two more than Newcastle did, and were not embarrassed to get the ball forward quickly to them. Baldock was fast in behind while Murray led the line with the same selfless intelligence he has shown at this level for years. He has been as important as anyone to Brighton’s great season and is precisely the type of player that this Newcastle team are crying out for.
Murray was clever enough to win and then convert a penalty which, under most circumstances, would have been enough to take the three points. When Brighton had a corner, Murray tangled with Ciaran Clark, who put his hands on the wily striker. Murray went down, Robert Madley gave the penalty and Murray got up to tuck it in, his 17th of the season.
Newcastle played well in patches but suffered from not having a proper striker. They are not the same team without Dwight Gayle and neither Yoan Gouffran nor Mohamed Diame gave them the presence they needed. Their two best players were DeAndre Yedlin and Christian Atsu and the closest Newcastle came to a first-half equaliser was with the last kick of the first half. Atsu played a clever pass to Yedlin, who ran down the wing and pulled a cross into the box. Atsu met it on the volley and David Stockdale had to dive down to his right to keep it out.
Brighton started the second half aggressively, Paul Dummett having to clear off the line from Lewis Dunk’s header before Karl Darlow saved from Baldock. Their best chance of the early second half was a gift. Stockdale skewed a kick straight to Gouffran, 20 yards out from goal. An instinctive confident striker like Gayle would have taken it but that is not who Gouffran is. He paused nervously, allowed Stockdale to scamper out, and then shot straight at him.
That was when it felt as if Newcastle simply did not have the threat to keep up with this Brighton side. It was only when Daryl Murphy came on for Jack Colback that Newcastle had their own presence up front. He headed one chance straight at Stockdale and his next header was tipped round the post. That forced the corner that was punched out, leading to the moment of historical farce.
Brighton (4-4-2) Stockdale; Saltor, Duffy, Dunk, Pocognoli (Tomori, 17); Knockaert, Stephens, Sidwell, Murphy; Baldock (Kayal, 85), Murray
Newcastle (4-4-1-1) Darlow; Yedlin, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett; Atsu, Shelvey, Colback (Murphy, 75), Ritchie; Diame; Gouffran (perez, 82)
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