It's now Roma or bust for Brighton and their struggling loan ace Ansu Fati

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Ansu Fati struggled on his return to the starting XI during the FA Cup loss at Wolves on Wednesday night.

Fati, 20, is now deep into his season long loan from Barcelona but it has proved frustrating for him, head coach Roberto De Zerbi, the fans and also most likely for chairman Tony Bloom, who is footing a huge chunk of his Barcelona wages.

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The Spain international has struggled with a calf injury since his surprise arrival and has made just two Premier League starts. His most encouraging displays were in the Europa League group stages where he scored twice and claimed one assist from four starts.

Ansu Fati arrived on loan at Brighton from Barcelona at the start of the seasonAnsu Fati arrived on loan at Brighton from Barcelona at the start of the season
Ansu Fati arrived on loan at Brighton from Barcelona at the start of the season

Fati’s skill and talent is without question. His first touch is a delight, his vision and speed of thought is quicker than most but getting his body strong enough to cope with the demands of De Zerbi’s style in the Premier League has been problematic. The impact of swapping Barcelona – where he was the wonder-kid with a 1 billion euro release clause – for the Lancing training ground is also quite the transition that can’t be ignored.

De Zerbi has remained patient but last week openly challenged him to step-up and prove his value as injuries to Joao Pedro, Evan Ferguson, Danny Welbeck, Kaoru Mitoma, Julio Enciso and Solly March have stretched Albion’s attacking options to the limit.

At Wolves he made his first start since November and played up front with Facundo Buonanotte and Simon Adingra. Fati was tidy, linked the play well enough at times but showed very little threat and the Wolves defenders were comfortable against him. Brighton fans criticised his display but he was far from the only Albion player lacking sharpness in the final third on Wednesday.

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"I think Ansu Fati and Facundo both played a good game,” countered De Zerbi after the FA Cup loss. “Facundo is 2004 (born), Ansu Fati was injured for three months."

It smacked of a performance where Fati was testing his fitness with the view to (hopefully) going full-tilt against Roma in the Europa League round of 16 this Thursday. Ferguson will likely play at Fulham this Saturday, leaving Fati and his more subtle skills fresh for the Stadio Olimpico.

As harsh as it sounds, his season now amounts to these two Europa League games. If he plays well, scores and Brighton advance his loan will be remembered and perhaps even deemed a minor success. If not, it’s a one season experiment that just failed to fire.