In this strangest of seasons Aston Villa are the Premier League’s most entertaining puzzle, while VAR remains the most contentious. Since thrashing Liverpool 7-2 at Villa Park in October, Dean Smith’s men have won away to Leicester and Arsenal but lost all three of their home matches, including this rollicking duel with a smart, tenacious and slightly lucky Brighton side who – and this is rare – proved to be more efficient than their opponents.
“We’ve played well in previous games and done a lot of good things but not got the rewards so these three points are very good for us,” said Graham Potter.
After goals by Danny Welbeck and Solly March either side of one by Ezri Konsa, Brighton benefited in stoppage time from the surprising reversal of a penalty decision, with Michael Oliver overturning his own ruling after going to the pitchside screen to review a tackle by March on Trezeguet.
This was the sort of harum-scarum and feisty affair that would have had Villa Park heaving if fans had been present. Both sides could have struck at least three goals in the first half alone. As it transpired, the visitors led just 1-0 at the break thanks to a slick combination between two players who showed they still have plenty to offer.
In the 12th minute Adam Lallana, with a sweet pivot and pass in midfield, released Welbeck, who raced through from the halfway line before clipping the ball over Emi Martínez. It was alarming how easily Villa’s high defence had been caught out by a single pass and what followed revived memories of their last match here, when Southampton scored with practically every attack on the way to a 4-3 win. Although Villa spent much of the game on the front foot, Brighton looked capable of scoring whenever they advanced.
Lamptey wrought havoc from his right-back berth and offered Welbeck a chance to make it 2-0 in the 22nd minute after seizing on a loose pass by John McGinn. But a poor touch by the striker spared Villa.
Villa, whose problems began in the second minute when Ross Barkley pulled up with hamstring trouble that led to him being replaced, could have been on level terms by then, but Trezeguet had a shot from close range blocked by Adam Webster and then blasted the rebound wide. Barkley’s replacement, Bertrand Traoré, then forced Mat Ryan into a diving save from the edge of the area. Moments later, Martínez charged out of his box to thwart Maupay after a cute through ball by Welbeck.
Lallana glanced a shot wide from 12 yards after more high-class service from Lamptey. Villa are generally powerful from set pieces but did not threaten from any until Tyrone Mings went close from a corner, forcing Ryan to improvise a kick off the line.
Moments later Ben White came to the visitors’ rescue, charging back to tip the ball off the foot of Watkins just as the striker seemed certain to turn in a cross by Grealish, who had switched flanks by then, possibly to escape Lamptey.
Brighton finally buckled just after the interval, when Konsa slid in at the back post to volley a free-kick by Traoré into the net. But Villa remained ragged at the back, a flaw Brighton soon punished. When Pascal Gross collected the ball on the right of Villa’s box in the 55th minute, he had time to play it across the area to the unmarked March, who guided a curling shot into the top corner of the net.
Villa thought they had been given a chance to salvage a point in stoppage time when the referee pointed to the spot after March appeared to catch Trezeguet with a trailing leg. But, on the advice of the VAR official, Oliver took a closer look and seemingly judged that March connected with the ball before touching Trezeguet.
“I don’t know what a penalty is now and I’m at a loss to explain it,” said Smith. “If VAR thinks it’s not a penalty, then just tell the referee.”