Sodden, shivering and almost – but not quite – smiling. Words that could have applied equally to Marco Silva and Roberto De Zerbi, who shared the south-coast spoils.
For Silva, a point will have been deeply satisfying. Remember, he could so easily have been thousands of miles away enjoying sunshine and riches untold. Saudi Arabia called; Silva said no. Instead, the ink on a contract extension keeping him at Fulham until 2026 recently dried.
And it is afternoons such as this, where his managerial mettle is tested to its maximum, that Silva relishes. Afternoons where a draw is earned via thought, determination and a superb João Palhinha equaliser. Remember this: for all the plaudits (rightly) poured upon Brighton over the past 13 months, Silva’s Fulham have taken four points at the Amex Stadium.
In fact, despite losing Aleksandar Mitrovic, Fulham have one more point than at this stage last season. “I want to see us grow more and more,” Silva said. “I am really ambitious. I want to take steps forward – I am realistic at the same time – but I want to take more steps forward if we can.”
For De Zerbi – a year on from a sweeping aside of Chelsea that will for ever be a touchstone of his time at Brighton – Evan Ferguson scored a deserved first-half opener. Brighton controlled huge portions of the match. But a failure to find a decisive second cost them two points. It ended up being a gentle tug back earthwards following a European high just 72 hours prior.
“I think we played a great game, especially three days after Ajax,” De Zerbi said. “We conceded a goal in only one moment of five to seven minutes where we lost distances, where we lost the balance. We are frustrated with the result, but we can focus on the performance – the performance was great.”
Fulham came to frustrate. They constantly, and sensibly, declined the hosts’ invitation to press. And so Brighton had to pull and stretch, poke and prod. Adam Lallana showed just what a lovely footballer he remains. A shimmy and cross saw Simon Adingra almost poke Brighton into the lead. Bernd Leno got there first. Just.Evan Ferguson shows his delight after giving Brighton the lead. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA
Brighton’s goal came when Fulham forward Raúl Jiménez, not counting on Igor Julio’s close attention, was pickpocketed. Julio found Pascal Gross; a man puzzled by the apparent space in front of him – Silva would later bemoan his side’s lack of pre-interval aggression.
Eventually, Gross raised his head to spot Ferguson. Making a run? No, simply standing between Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream. In mitigation, the Fulham pair deemed Ferguson offside. But for Calvin Bassey’s mispositioning, he would have been. One Ferguson right-footed touch. One left-footed finish made to look far easier than it was. One De Zerbi pirouette of joy.
The game needed chasing, but with an attack as potent as water, it was difficult, through the driving rain, to see Fulham doing any catching. Yet when Jiménez – who, after 32 goalless league games, needs a purple patch more luminous than his side’s pink outfit to have even a passable centre-forward’s numbers – departed just before the hour, something changed.
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By then, De Zerbi’s irritation was clearly visible. Had Lewis Dunk’s bar-grazing free-kick after half-time been a few inches lower, the equaliser might not have happened. Had Palhinha been punished for a first-half elbow on Gross, the equaliser would not have happened.
The game’s final quarter was frantic, the polar opposite to the low intensity contest that had come before it. Fulham’s shape, two banks of primal footballing screen, sat tight. Brighton pushed. Hard.
Ansu Fati drew a save from Leno; Adam Webster’s looping header was nodded off the line by Robinson; those occupying the two technical areas became increasingly tetchy. De Zerbi’s baseball cap was flung in disgust at a misplaced pass. Silva moved with purpose, covering every inch of his white-lined enclosure.
And then the whistle went. Hands were shaken. Neither would have it any other way.