Eight clean sheets in eleven games, including five consecutive shutouts most recently, have propelled Brighton & Hove Albion back into the automatic promotion race, as the Seagulls occupy second position in the SkyBet Championship ahead of Friday night’s high-stakes clash between Hull City and Middlesbrough.
A scrappy 1-0 win at Blackburn Rovers in January ended a poor spell of form for Chris Hughton’s side, marking a turnaround that has produced 24 points from a possible 33, with Reading the latest victims of Albion’s success.
Back-to back 4-0 victories over Bristol City and Leeds United at the end of February opened up a run of five games without conceding a goal, whilst also sending out a message that Albion can convincingly punish teams, after going six months without winning a game by more than a single goal.
A pair of 0-0 stalemates followed, a reminder of Albion’s inconsistent power in front of goal, however their resolute performances at the back continued, to provide solid foundations that they couldn’t take full advantage of.
James Wilson’s first-half strike was enough to take all three points from Tuesday evening’s visit of Reading, as Albion were able to take one of their very few chances to win the game, highlighting the importance of their astute defensive display, led by young central defenders Conor Goldson and Lewis Dunk.
Surprisingly, only three teams have hit the back of the net more than Albion this season, with their goal-difference disadvantage within the league’s leading quartet down to their defensive record, despite recently turning a corner on that front.
The 4-1 defeat against Cardiff City was evidence of Albion’s potential to self-destruct, but their professional response, that has left them in the automatic promotion places, deserves recognition and has shown the character of Hughton’s squad.
But if Albion are to seal automatic promotion to the Premier League in May, what’s it going to take from now until the end of the season?
Of course, clean sheets are a good start. Like Albion have proven in their previous five outings, if you don’t concede a goal, you can’t possibly lose a game of football.
Albion have shown their ability to squeeze out points from average attacking displays and if they’re able to shut David Stockdale’s door for the majority of their remaining fixtures, Hughton will fancy his team’s chances of capitalising at the other end.
Burnley, Derby and Middlesbrough occupy positions on Albion’s sloping fixture list and represent chances for the Seagulls to climb the league ladder, whilst knocking others off their perch.
Maximum points in these games would be priceless for the Seagulls and as long as they take care of regular business elsewhere, would surely guarantee a first return to England’s top flight in over 30 years.
Realistically, nine points from nine is an audacious expectation of points and Albion must focus on a more-achievable target, which is to avoid losing by maintaining the defensive form that has paid dividends in recent weeks.
Minus Solly March, Albion’s squad is at peak fitness and Hughton is spoilt for choice. Options from the bench look stronger than ever and if Albion manage to maintain their defensive hostility, just one chance in front of goal could be the difference between a point and the entire share of the spoils.
Albion must remain cool as the promotion battle heats up. Almost 7,000 fans travel to Milton Keynes on Saturday and a sixth clean sheet in succession will surely mean another maximum on the road.
By Kieran Cleeves