Real Madrid target Roberto De Zerbi faces his biggest challenge to date as Brighton go to Marseille

Ian Hart on Brighton’s daunting Europa League trip to Marseille so soon after their mauling at Aston Villa
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Never mind Harold Wilson and his seven days being a long time in politics, in Albion terms the last eight days have been almost transcending.

Penning my column early last week, I was looking forward to visiting Stamford Bridge for a League Cup encounter against Chelsea. Bad fan alert, or was I just being pragmatic?… but travelling up to West London I wasn’t that bothered about the result, in fact if truth be told providing the Albion gave a good account of themselves, a third Round exit from the competition wouldn’t have had me crying all the way back to Sussex.

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As it turned out, Albion weren’t that bad, had a couple of decent chances and probably did enough on the night to beat on the face of it a bang average Chelsea.

Brighton's Italian head coach Roberto De Zerbi saw his side beaten 6-1 at Aston VillaBrighton's Italian head coach Roberto De Zerbi saw his side beaten 6-1 at Aston Villa
Brighton's Italian head coach Roberto De Zerbi saw his side beaten 6-1 at Aston Villa

And as an aside, we should never underestimate the power of a local fan base we have at The Amex. I was with a Worthing based Chelsea fan and I ended up in the main stand and cannot remember, in more than half a century watching English football, seeing as many tourists in one place. It was no different to being at the Tower of London or Madame Tussauds.

But like I said, I really didn’t mind that we lost. Because as discussed in the Sussex World weekly sports podcast last Thursday, the next three games, Villa away last Saturday, Marseilles away this Thursday and then Liverpool at home on Sunday, we’re potentially three games that could be pivotal to the rest of the season.

I went as far as stating in the ‘pod’ that Brighton had to at least avoid defeat in all three matches. How wrong I was!

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Rocket science it ain’t, and after 51 years of supporting the Seagulls, losing is as much about the experience as both winning or drawing. How can you really savour victory properly unless you felt the hurt a defeat can bring?

But there clearly are various levels of defeat, and the 6-1 thrashing by Villa Saturday lunchtime was the worst possible kind. With my blue and white tinted spectacles on, there was perhaps a glimmer of hope at 3-1, if Albion had got another quickly at 3-2, it’s a different game but it wasn’t and at the end even the most diehard Albion fan could have little complaint about the final score.

So my three game unbeaten run pre-requisite crashes and burns, which then cranks up the Europa League visit to the South of France to a scale probably never seen before in the club’s history.

The emphatic home defeats this year, 1-5 vs Everton and 1-3 vs West Ham, pale into insignificance. To the Albion and Roberto De Zerbi’s credit, the team responded superbly both times beating Arsenal at the Emirates, and soundly despatching Newcastle at home respectively, but that’s history now.

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There’s no margin for error. Allowing for injuries, RDZ has to pick the strongest team available to him, casting aside any thoughts of the Liverpool game, and they simply have to win on the French Riviera. Emphatic or ugly, it doesn’t matter.

The Albion’s style of football has obviously attracted a fair number of admirers outside Sussex and beyond, but also a number of detractors from rival teams, perhaps jealous of our apparent current standing in the domestic football ladder. Saturday’s defeat has seen many of them crawl out of the woodwork, my phone had a fair amount of negative traffic Saturday afternoon, but the only way to silence the negative vibes is the Albion’s first ever win in Europe.

Pre Villa there was media speculation that RDZ was on Real Madrid’s wish list. Should a managerial vacancy arise at the Bernabau, another defeat and his supposed detractors, who clearly haven’t got a leg to stand on, would feel they were gathering more momentum.

I said it before and will say it again… RDZ is the real deal, the best manager the club has ever had, and possibly will ever have. So expect the ultimate response from both RDZ and his team in Marseille on Thursday as the first ever Albion European excursion ends with a positive outcome.