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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

Arsenal ignore proximity of Bayern tie to keep focus on their main prize

Brighton & Hove Albion (0) 0

Arsenal (1) 3 Saka 33 (pen), Havertz 62, Trossard 86

Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League with the kind of performance which wins championship titles, as they impressively brushed aside Brighton & Hove Albion with a 3-0 success on the South Coast.

Bukayo Saka scored a penalty to give the Gunners a first half lead, and Kai Havertz double their advantage in the second half, before Leandro Trossard got the third goal which secured another precious three points.

It meant that Arsenal again overtook Liverpool and Manchester City for first place in the table, with the Merseysiders now having to beat Manchester United at Old Trafford to go back ahead in the fascinating three-way tussle for the title.

Arsenal did everything they needed to against Brighton to keep up their pursuit of a first Premier League triumph since 2004, as they extended their unbeaten run in the competition from the start of this year to eleven games, including ten wins.

The Gunners also equalled a long-standing club record with a fifth consecutive clean sheet in away league matches, which they had previously managed to achieve in 1997.

Every component part on the pitch functioned perfectly to inflict a first home Premier League defeat on Brighton since August, when West Ham United won 3-1 on the South Downs.

It ended an Albion club record of 12 successive top-flight home games unbeaten, and a total of 14 matches in all competitions since the Seagulls had last lost on their own turf.

In truth, it was probably a very good time to visit Brighton, who have now scored just three goals in eight games in all competitions, and have only three wins in 12 matches in the Premier League in 2024.

They have an extensive injury list, including importantly Kaoru Mitoma, Solly March, James Milner, Billy Gilmour, Jack Hinshelwood and Evan Ferguson, with their remaining players looking jaded after carrying an increased workload.

The Albion head coach, Roberto De Zerbi, made five changes to the starting line-up which had drawn 0-0 at Brentford in midweek, and it seemed to have the desired effect of reinvigorating his team.

Arsenal reverted to almost exactly the same side that had begun the game at Manchester City six days earlier, with just one adjustment, at left-back, where Oleksandr Zinchenko replaced Jakub Kiwior.

That showed Mikel Arteta’s desire to give his side more attacking intent, and it was quickly reflected on the field as Arsenal created a series of good early chances in the Sussex rain.

Gabriel Magalhães headed narrowly wide from a Martin Ødegaard free-kick, and Saka should have scored when cutting into the penalty area onto his left-foot but missed the target with his eventual shot.

Saka then set up Gabriel Jesus for a first-time strike which was very well saved by the diving Bart Verbruggen, before Gabriel Jesus nodded a header past the post from an inviting Havertz cross.

The Brazillian forward made amends by winning the crucial penalty which broke the deadlock just after the half-hour mark. His left-wing run and dart back inside was only ended with a rash tackle by Tariq Lamptey.

Referee John Brooks had no hesitation in immediately pointing to the spot, with confirmation quickly following from the VAR, despite vehement Brighton protests that Lamptey had got the ball first.

Although close-up images demonstrated a slight touch of the ball by the defender’s outstretched foot, De Zerbi afterwards acknowledged that a penalty was the right decision for such a poor challenge.

Inevitably, Saka did not squander the opportunity, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way, with a left-footed strike into the bottom left corner of the net, to put Arsenal in front in the 33rd minute.

Saka has now converted nine of the ten Premier League penalties he has taken, including each of his last five. Overall this season Arsenal have had a total of 18 penalties, including shoot-outs - and have scored every single one.

The contrast to last April was particularly striking, with a missed Saka penalty away to West Ham United a year ago proving costly in a 2-2 draw which contributed to the Gunners’ loss of an eight-point lead in the league.

Arteta is revelling in the difference in his players’ performances this time, after the match pointing out the reasons: “We are older. We went through a lot of moments together and you build the chemistry within the team.

“We signed some tremendous players as well, which helps. The squad is healthy and the momentum is good. My energy is the same, the enthusiasm is the same. I’m just enjoying the moment and embracing it, and let’s see how far we can go.”

Brighton’s response to Arsenal was restricted to shooting from long-range, with David Raya not being forced into making a save until a couple of minutes before the break, when he brilliantly tipped away a Julio Enciso effort that was curling in at the angle of post and crossbar.

Arsenal’s statistics for not squandering half-time leads have been excellent since last season, and it rarely looked as if that recent run would be threatened, with Albion only ever managing to produce half-chances.

Nevertheless, in an entertaining contest played at a high technical level and with plenty of creativity, the hosts were still in it until shortly after entering the final 30 minutes of the match, when the Gunners went two up.

And it was thanks to a goal made in Chelsea. Two ex-Blues players combined, with the outstanding Jorginho getting away down the right wing and providing a perfect low cross to the near post for Havertz to tuck in first-time left-footed.

This was the seventh successive game in which Havertz has been played at centre-forward by Arteta, and he has responded by scoring five times in the last seven league appearances he has made.

However, Havertz’s 62nd minute goal did not stop Arsenal looking to extend their lead - and to add to their goal difference, which could prove vital if ultimately there is a tie on points at the top of the league table.

Most Brighton fans had seen enough and had headed for the exits after going 2-0 down. Those few who were left had their misery compounded by one of the Seagulls’ least favourite ex-players in Trossard.

The Belgian international had already forced Verbruggen into a fine save with a low drive from a long way out, when, with five minutes remaining, he broke clear from his own half and ran through to finish with a beautiful dummy and chip over the goalkeeper.

It once more underlined how Arsenal are getting their goals this season from several sources. Saka is leading their scorers on 17, including 14 in the league, while Havertz has 10 (with 9 in Premier League matches), and Trossard 12 (of which 8 have been in the league).

All three this time were helped by Albion errors, with Lamptey’s catastrophic foul for the penalty, plus Enciso and then Pascal Gross losing possession for the second and third goals, respectively.

But Arsenal were rewarded with goals for the high energy and effort which they put in, right the way through the match, without easing off at all to save themselves ahead of Bayern Munich’s visit for their Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday.

When Gabriel put in yet another block to stop a goalbound Brighton shot late on, the defenders’ delighted celebrations were as extravagant as if their team had scored at the other end of the pitch.

It illustrated how much keeping a clean sheet meant to them, in itself, as well as for the record sequence, but above all in increasing Arsenal’s goal difference to 51, which may now be insurmountable for Liverpool and Manchester City.

The only tiny consolation for Brighton supporters came in the 95th minute when another unpopular former player, Ben White, picked up a yellow card on his 100th Premier League appearance for the Gunners.

The Arsenal end raucously sang “We are top of the league!”, not overly concerned that a landslide in the Haywards Heath area was making railway journeys back to London more difficult and time-consuming.

At the final whistle, despite the relentless rain, the setting sun emerged under the extensive clouds and produced a spectacular rainbow over the Brighton stadium. Could it be a sign that there is a pot of gold awaiting Arsenal?

Brighton and Hove Albion: (4-2-3-1) Verbruggen - Lamptey, van Hecke, Dunk, Estupiñán - Baleba, Gross - Adingra, Moder (Buonanotte 63), Enciso (João Pedro 63) - Welbeck (Ansu Fati 76)

Arsenal: (4-2-3-1) Verbruggen - White, Saliba, Gabriel, Zinchenko (Tomiyasu 72) - Jorginho, Rice - Saka (Martinelli 64), Ødegaard (Vieira 89), Gabriel Jesus (Trossard 64) - Havertz (Nketiah 89)

Attendance: 31,677


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