The sudden rush of incentive gained by Middlesbrough and Burnley on Saturday, knowing they could make up ground on leaders Hull after watching them drop two points on Friday night, isn’t a luxury afforded to Brighton. Two wins and a draw between the top three is about par for the course at this stage of the season, so away wins for the Clarets and Boro have subsequently thrown down a gauntlet to Chris Hughton’s men: are you in or out?
Four points adrift of third, the Seagulls cannot change positions if they win here, they can only lose ground on the automatic places. It’s a subtle difference in perspective but potentially a crucial one. Albion will be wisely trying all they can to concentrate on their own game and not get distracted by the dynamics of that wider context, but it’s easier said than done.
Leeds are nuisance opposition, a team with nothing to play for if you look at the table, and everything to play for if you listen to Steve Evans. The Glaswegian is a proud man who gives the media no shortage of narrative and thrives on little victories such as avoiding defeat in games like this, enabling him to tell anyone who’ll listen that real progress is being made and his team are a match for anyone.
The Whites are still without striker Chris Wood - just 19 minutes played in 2016 - and their league record without the big New Zealander - one win in nine matches - tells its own story, but a double-pivot of Toumani Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt is as strong as any protective midfield barrier in the Championship and goes some way towards explaining why Leeds’ recent games have been low on chances and, therefore, goals.
Bridcutt can expect a warm reception on his return to the Amex and though a tidy central midfield pairing of Dale Stephens and Beram Kayal is currently Brighton’s greatest strength, with Steve Sidwell providing experienced cover, their fans have every right to be somewhat miffed at the sight of their big-money departure returning with a team harbouring no promotion ambitions.
As Evans rightly points out, players generally do raise their game against former employers, no matter how great the affinity, and Bridcutt, keen to prove his career hasn’t gone backwards since leaving Sussex, might be instrumental in frustrating the hosts. In short, the bet to be having here is the draw at 13/5. My tissue makes it 9/4.
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