Roberto De Zerbi promises to stay at Brighton and embark on their European adventure
Brighton 3-1 Southampton (Ferguson 29′, 40′, Gross 69′ | Elyounoussi 58′)
Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton squad enjoyed the sort of post-match lap of honour on Sunday with two matches to play this season that usually follows a promotion or a title win. But a guaranteed place in Europe for the first time in a club’s history, not to mention their highest-ever league finish, is worthy of a break in convention.
With two matches left to play, at home to champions Manchester City on Wednesday and away to Aston Villa on Sunday, they are likely to finish sixth and qualify for the Europa League thanks to a superiority of 15 in goal difference over Villa.
Should the unthinkable happen, then seventh and the Europa Conference League would be the worst they could do and both would have been beyond their wildest dreams when Chelsea poached head coach Graham Potter in the autumn.
Two goals from Ireland striker Evan Ferguson put them 2-0 ahead at the break against Southampton on Sunday, but Saints pulled one back through Mohamed Elyounoussi and were only denied an equaliser by VAR before Pascal Gross made it 3-1.
“A historic result but [we have] not finished yet because we need one point to play in the Europa League,” De Zerbi said.
“I think we don’t need too many players but we have to compete in the Europa League. It will be tougher for sure for us. I think we will lose some big players but it’s right they deserve to play for other targets in other teams. We have to bring in other big players within the policy of the club of course.
“I can’t explain my emotion. It is the best day in my career.
“I lost qualification for the Europa League with Sassuolo for only two goals of difference and I think I deserve this target, we deserve this target, the club, the players, me, my staff and the fans. We will play to win to show our quality and keep our style.”
The Italian himself has been linked with moves to other clubs in England and abroad, but he poured cold water on any such suggestion.
“For me it is an honour to work here and continue to work here,” he said. “I never thought to go back in Italy with another team or a Premier League team. I want to stay, I don’t know how many years but for me it’s an honour and I’m enjoying a lot to work with these people.”
Japan winger Kaoru Mitoma missed two chances to put Brighton ahead, hitting one shot past the right-hand post and another against the left-hand one, but Southampton squandered an even better opening when Carlos Alcaraz shot wide with only Jason Steele to beat.
Finally Ferguson took a pass from Alexis Mac Allister on the right of the penalty area and thrashed a shot under goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. It was the 18-year-old’s fifth Premier League goal and his sixth followed when after 40 minutes when Mitoma outmuscled Romeo Lavia and crossed low for Ferguson to shoot first-time past McCarthy.
Southampton, though, battled on. Elyounoussi headed in a corner from James Ward-Prowse after 57 minutes and their fans rejoiced prematurely when Theo Walcott ran through to beat Steele before VAR ruled him offside. But Gross settled the nerves with a calm finish between McCarthy and his near post and the songs about a European tour began.
Southampton, whose winless run stretched to 13 games, are to announce that Swansea City manager Russell Martin will take over as manager, which came as news to Ruben Selles, the caretaker, who had only been told after the final whistle.
“I expect that if something goes on like that and it goes before the Liverpool game, somebody will come to me and communicate to me in the proper way,” he said. “I’m not worried about my future. My contract expires at the end of the season and it’s not my decision. We have competed better than results show.”