Brighton gave Ajax a footballing lesson here. Let’s run that again: Brighton, a club that spent 34 years outside the English top flight before their return in 2017, took the inventors of modern football, the mighty Ajax, to school under the floodlights of Falmer. It’s the sort of occasion you’d imagine Brighton fans won’t have difficulty recalling in future, regardless of where this European tour ends up.
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A first-half goal from João Pedro was followed shortly after the break by one from Ansu Fati to wrap up this match but the home side’s dominance was not truly captured by the scoreline, nor even by the 62% of possession they held.
Instead, the gap between these two sides was marked by the ease with which the hosts went about their work: always composed, always calm, always with the ball under control. As debut European victories go, it was assured.
“Ajax is a very big club who taught all of us to play football and to beat them playing in the way they taught us is a big, big step,” said the Brighton manager, Roberto De Zerbi.
“Today we wanted 150% the victory. We played a great game with high quality. We could score more goals but the most important thing was not to concede, we closed the game with a clean sheet. I think we showed an important mentality but the challenge is that I am thinking about Fulham [in the Premier League] because we have to arrive on Sunday with the same passion, same motivation and attitude.”
Ansu Fati slots home Brighton’s second goal to seal victory over Ajax. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images
De Zerbi is a manager whose targets and standards seem always to be shifting upwards. In his post-match remarks he even had words of advice for Kaoru Mitoma, the Japanese winger who was unplayable here and led the way in the opening stages when a conservative Ajax side did their best to stay in the game. In the 42nd minute Mitoma did what his manager wants more of – moving from the wings to the centre of play – to take a threaded Lewis Dunk pass on the turn before driving a low finish beyond Diant Ramaj. The keeper got his body in the way but could only parry the ball to João Pedro who gleefully gobbled the chance to score.
That opening goal released whatever tension there had been, with Brighton and their fans so keen for the first three points of their first European campaign. The prospect came more clearly into focus five minutes after half-time when Fati doubled the lead. Again it was a punched pass straight down the middle that opened things up, this time from Simon Adingra who had drifted in off his station on the right wing. Fati received expertly and, from near the penalty spot, set himself up to shoot low across his marker and inside the left-hand post.
If it was disconcerting to watch Ajax struggle to deliver a physical, defensive style of play, it was at least in part understandable. Troubled on and off the field, the perennial Dutch champions sit second from bottom in the Eredivisie and came to Sussex with a temporary head coach, Hedwiges Maduro, in charge. The Europa League has offered something of a respite this season, with two hard-fought points to their name before this match. But by the time the game wound into its closing stages there was a lack of fight to go alongside the absence of football, total or otherwise.
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De Zerbi believes it’s the relentless schedule his team faces domestically and abroad that explains their inconsistent start to the season. But as the ball moved smoothly between blue and white shirts and the match came to a close there was a sense perhaps of feet being found; a team, a club, that has never been anywhere like this stage before, coming to the conclusion that they belong on it.