Barnsley 0, Brighton and Hove Albion 2
It is an indication of just how far Barnsley have come in a very short time that for the most part they were a match for the team that now sits on top of the Championship table.
However, high-flying Brighton were better in the one vital aspect of any game – scoring goals.
All the top teams have the happy knack of being able to conjure up decisive goals in encounters of very few chances, and that is exactly what the Albion produced on this occasion. – the art of winning matches.
The Reds gave as good as they got in the first half; fell behind just after the break to a goal of high quality; continued to put the high-flying Premiership hopefuls to the test; fell further behind to another classy strike, yet to their credit were still battling away right to the final whistle.
There was so much to commend in the Oakwell team’s performance. But there is one area in particular which needs improvement. At this level they need to take more of their chances. Since the defection of top scorer Sam Winnall to neighbours Sheffield Wednesday they have failed to score in three out of four fixtures.
Against Brighton, twin strikers Tom Bradshaw and Adam Armstrong once again worked tirelessly, acting as the first line of defence as they closed down the opposition well inside the Brighton half of the field; made intelligent runs off the ball; were involved in some neat inter-passing; and provided the pace to unsettle any defence.
But they failed to produce the all-important end product.
It was Marley Watkins, employed in a wide role on the right of midfield who produced the Reds’ best effort mid-way through the first half, which was well saved by David Stockdale.
Yet it might have been so different had referee David Coote not dismissed a terrific shout for a penalty – from players and fans alike – after only 12 minutes had elapsed. Lewis Dunk appeared to handle the ball when Marc Roberts chipped it into the box for Bradshaw to run on to, but the official was unimpressed.
When questioned about the incident in the post-match press conference Barnsley head coach Paul Heckingbottom replied: “It’s a definite penalty. But we’re not a team that relies on the referee to get us results. We have to do that on our own.”
He went on: “It was a very even game, but one that showed why Brighton are at the top of the league. They were clinical at one end and really tight and stringent at the other.”
The Reds continued to have the better of the exchanges in the first 20 minutes, with a good low drive from Watkins bringing an equally good diving save from Stockdale and seconds laster Armstrong firing another well-struck effort straight at the ‘keeper.
Andy Yiadom then came to Barnsley’s resue with a magnificent block tackle to deny Anthony Knockaert, and a deflected header from Glenn Murray was tipped over the bar by Adam Davies.
After Roberts had headed wide from a corner the Reds came under pressure leading up to half-time, but they coped well and Brighton were unable to produce a shot on target, their one attempt from Sebastien Pocognoli going well wide.
The game continued to ebb and flow after the break, Sam Baldock heading over from a Knockaert cross at one end and Bradshaw powering a shot just wide at the other.
But then, with 53 minutes gone, Baldock showed his pedigree with a superb dipping shot from 25 yards. It was no more than a half-chance, but brilliantly taken.
Ten minutes later Heckingbottom sent on his ‘impact’ player, Adam Hammill, in a bid to rescue a point, and he had been on the field only a minute before he had his side’s best chance of the game. Armstrong pulled the ball back to him from the right; he was in the clear just inside the penalty area; but skied his shot over the bar.
Shortly after he was picked out by Ryan Kent and this time his aim was much better, only for the ball to thud straight into the welcoming arms of Stockdale.
Barely had the Reds time to recover from that double disappointment when Brighton signalled game over by adding a second goal. Knockaert’s clever footwork set up Baldock, who once again suppplied a clinical finish in a crowded goalmouth.
In Knockaert and Baldock Albion have two players who are capable of producing match-winning moments like this and that is one of the main reasons why they are leading the promotion charge under the wise guidance of manager Chris Hughton.
It was almost 3-0 in the 73rd minute when Baldock created a golden opportunity for Jamie Murphy only for the latter to miskick horribly wide.
However, the Reds fought admirably to the final whistle. Watkins twice tested Stockdale with headers; a 25-yarder from Armstrong whizzed narrowly wide; and a speculative effort from Hammill flew inches over the bar.
But there was no way through. Brighton remained strong. And they seem sufficiently well equipped to clinch that precious Premiership place at the end of the campaign.
As for Barnsley they can still dream of the play-offs – although they face another huge test of their credentials when they entertain in-form third-placed Huddersfield Town at Oakwell next Saturday.
They continue to be well served in goal by Davies; the back four is resilient and resourceful, with Roberts (pictured) leading by example and Yiadom looking more and more like a player capable of playing at the top level; George Moncur, Matty James and substitute Alex Mowatt showing that there is strong competition in central midfield, especially when Josh Scowen is fit again; and there is pace a-plenty both wide and up front.
All that is lacking is a player, or players, with the magical match-winning qualities of Baldock and Knockaert, who, as Heckingbottom observed afterwards ‘have the ability to take half-chances and make them count.”
But Heckingbottom also said: “We can’t just accept that we’re playing a side at the top with good players, so we’re going to get beat. We have to learn what we can from games like this. We want to get to that stage where we’re beating these teams because we’ve got the best players. That’s our aim.”
Barnsley (4-4-2): Davies; Yiadom, Roberts, MacDonald, Jones; Watkins, Moncur (Mowatt, 80 mins), James, Kent (Williams, 80 mins); Armstrong, Bradshaw (Hammill, 63 mins).
Brighton (4-4-2): Stockdale; Bruno, Duffy, Dunk, Pocognoli; Knockaert (Tomori, 90+2 mins), Stephens, Sidwell, Murphy; Murray (Akpom, 88 mins), Baldock.
Bookings: Baldock (Brighton).
Referee: David Coote.
Attendance: 12,745 (1,396 away).