Brighton and Hove Albion are unrecognisable from the team that went seven league games without a win earlier this season, a run of fixtures that began with Monday’s opponents Derby County and included a 3-0 defeat to promotion rivals Middlesbrough, who Albion travel to on the final day of the season.
Chris Hughton’s third-placed team sit level on points with Boro and Burnley at the top of the Championship, just two and three goals shy of their respective rivals on goal difference. The Seagulls will guarantee promotion to the Premier League with a point against the Rams and victory at the Riverside Stadium on May 7th.
Albion took a point from the reverse fixtures of their final two games, conceding a late penalty to draw 2-2 with Derby at the Ipro Stadium, triggering Albion’s worst run of form this season, which included Boro’s emphatic win at the Amex Stadium that ended their 21-game unbeaten streak.
Following the crushing defeat, Albion lost three of their next four league games and were also dumped out of the FA Cup. A 1-0 victory at Blackburn Rovers ended the rotten run, thanks to Bobby Zamora’s 4th-minute winner, and Albion have recorded another 12 wins, 4 draws and only one defeat since.
With only two games remaining, Albion are within touching distance of the Premier League, but repeat performances against their final two opponents will almost definitely mean a third play-off campaign in the space of four years.
Of course, another jab at the play-offs wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Sussex side, especially considering their battle against relegation only 12 months ago. But with Albion currently the form side in the second tier, boasting an aggregate score of 12-1 in their previous three games, missing out on a top-two finish will be a bitter pill to swallow.
However, there’s absolutely no reason why Albion should doubt themselves going into the decisive run-in, and here’s why…
Chris Hughton recruited wisely during the January transfer window, refurbishing a team who were suffering due to injury, a lack of creation and a tarnished level of confidence.
Anthony Knackert, Jiri Skalak and Steve Sidwell were brought in to refresh the squad and boost Albion’s chances of finishing inside the top six, a target which has well and truly been surpassed.
Only five players, who started against Middlesbrough in December, are likely to be on the field come Monday afternoon, which is a big sign of the squad rotation Hughton has enjoyed throughout the second half of the season.
David Stockdale, Bruno, Dale Stephens, Beram Kayal and Tomer Hemed are likely to retain their place from Albion’s first taste of defeat, with Conor Goldson and Lewis Dunk replacing Gordon Greer and Uwe Hunemeier as Albion’s partnership in central defence.
Elsewhere, another complete swap is expected on the wings with Skalak and Knockart, who have contributed seven goals and eleven assists between them, coming in to replace Jamie Murphy and former loanee Rajiv van La Parra.
Sam Baldock and Liam Rosenior, who both suffered mid-season injuries, will switch with James Wilson and Inigo Calderon, as they look to continue their unbeaten records when starting for the Seagulls this season.
Albion were certainly under strength for the visit of Middlesbrough, but with Hughton’s squad now beaming with confidence and boosted with options, the Amex outfit are better equipped for their second meetings with Derby and Boro, who stand in their way of reaching the top tier of English football.
Not only will Albion look stronger at the referee’s first whistle, they’ll also look equally as dangerous on his last.
The importance of having strong options from the substitutes bench was highlighted against Nottingham Forest at the beginning of April, when Knockaert and Sidwell combined in stoppage-time to seal three points after being introduced late on.
Three of Albion’s bench against Boro are now out on loan (Andrew Crofts, Rohan Ince and Adam Chicksen) with Elvis Manu having recently returned from Huddersfield Town. Hughton will be spoilt for choice this time around though, with equally-effective replacements waiting in the wings to assist Albion’s promotion charge.
The Seagulls know four points in the correct order can do it. But with only one defeat in 18 and five consecutive wins under their belt, there should be no room for caution as Albion continue with the same winning mentality and strive for success.