Brighton miss captain Lewis Dunk but Liverpool squad passes test – Europa League and Europa Conference League hits and misses
We round up the talking points from Thursday’s night of Europa League and Europa Conference League football, featuring a tough first night in continental competition for Brighton, wins for Liverpool, West Ham, Rangers and Aberdeen, and a worrying loss for Aston Villa…
There were eyebrows raised when the teamsheet came out and Brighton captain Lewis Dunk was not in the matchday squad. Roberto De Zerbi confirmed pre-match that he was injured, along with striker Evan Ferguson.
We already knew that his absence would be a huge blow, but it was a bit of surprise just how much Brighton missed him.
While AEK’s opener was a moment of quality, their other two goals came from a lack of defensive awareness from Brighton’s back line. It was not helped by misplaced passes that the visitors capitalised on, but there’s no doubting the presence of Dunk in the middle of defence would have helped massively.
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Not only with his own defensive qualities, but also his leadership and organisation of the team. That was lacking at times when AEK were on the attack.
In fact, De Zerbi himself arguably summed up exactly what Brighton were missing with Dunk’s absence, saying: “When we defend set-pieces against these teams, we have to be more focused, more with the right attitude, more smart.
“Sometimes, we didn’t do it. If we want to make another upgrade, we have to know before the game the situations where we can concede goals.”
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Jan Paul van Hecke did well in spells, but he too could have done better for AEK’s third. It’s hard to pick out any standout moments in defence from Dunk’s replacement Igor either.
When Brighton had set-pieces, their clear plan was to find Van Hecke at the back post. However, this did not work and also allowed AEK an insight into what was to come. The Seagulls missed Dunk’s aerial presence too in those situations in what were wasted moments.
It was disappointing that Dunk had to miss out on such a monumental night for a club he has given so much to. But if anything, it proved just how vital the defender is to the Seagulls’ success, offering a timely reminder as Brighton embark on a historic European journey.
Jurgen Klopp vowed he would use the Europa League “to compete, not to give opportunities” and then made 11 changes – but his second-string side didn’t let Liverpool down.
Ben Doak became the club’s third-youngest player to feature in a European game at the age of 17 years and 314 days, 18-year-old midfielder Stefan Bajcetic was deployed at right-back for his first minutes of the season and new signing Ryan Gravenberch was handed his first start.
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They had work to do at half time but Liverpool’s quality came through. Darwin Nunez and Luis Diaz led yet another fightback with Gravenberch superbly assisting the second goal. Mo Salah came on for his customary European goal.
Klopp will be encouraged by how his much-changed side delivered an important victory to get their Europa League campaign underway while easing fixture congestion on his squad.
“I knew it would be really difficult, and it was difficult, even if people didn’t believe me,” said Klopp, although few will believe him over his next team selection.
West Ham had 78 per cent possession in the early stages of the first half of their win over Backa Topola without carving any opportunities open. They were making incorrect decisions when they were getting into areas when they needed to flash balls into the box.
The change in personnel was needed. They needed that focal point through the middle and Michail Antonio gave them that. Danny Ings was dropping into little pockets of space where you don’t really want him. You want someone to occupy the three centre halves. Antonio did that.
West Ham really did give it a go in the end. It was a really good response. They could have gone on and won it by four or five. They wore them down.
They have a better squad now to manage the demands of the Premier League and European football. It’s a long season when you’re in Europe. David Moyes has the luxury of being able to rest players and utilise the squad.
There has been some criticism for Rangers’ performances, especially in the big games, and they’ve managed to get the result against Real Betis.
In the second half, Rangers deserved it. They were excellent. In the first half there wasn’t much between the two teams.
Kemar Roofe was excellent, a real striker’s performance, a No 9’s performance, back to goal, bringing his team-mates into it, and he had a massive say in the goal as well, with his shot blocked.
After the results this week it has been left to Rangers to help Scottish football with the co-efficient points and they’ve managed to do that.
It’s a big result for Rangers, there’s no doubt about that. For Rangers to bounce back, get their Europa League campaign up and running, I’m sure Michael Beale and the players will be delighted.
Maybe Unai Emery underestimated Legia Warsaw. They were very good – well organised, turnovers fantastic and good on the counter-attack.
As for Villa: big, big question marks. I know players came into the side who haven’t featured much this season but you have to come in and have an impact and they didn’t do that. That’s why they fell short.
I think this will have an impact on their Premier League form. It wasn’t their strongest team but it was enough to get a result.
If you start group stages well you get the confidence, the knock-on belief. That didn’t fill me with any confidence. That reminded me of the Newcastle game at the start of the season with goals conceded far too easily.
They looked frustrated on the bench and it’s a bad start to Europe.
Few would have expected Aberdeen to cause Eintracht Frankfurt serious problems ahead of kick-off. The Dons, with just two points from their first five Scottish Premiership games, had a huge task on their hands against a side unbeaten in the Bundesliga and who won the Europa League just a couple of seasons ago.
Yet, Barry Robson’s side will leave Germany feeling frustrated by going down 2-1.
Dante Polvara picked a fine moment to score his first goal for the club, equalising to stun the 55,000 in the Waldstadion. Ester Sokler almost topped it – but shot wide in stoppage time when it looked like he may level the match for a second time.
Running Frankfurt so close, it was a performance Aberdeen could be proud of. But such were the fine margins, it could have been a truly memorable night.
“I am happy with the way we played and the commitment we put in, but I feel we could have deserved even more, had
that one chance right before full-time whistle gone in,” Robson said afterwards, before expressing his frustration at conceding from a set-piece and penalty.
Encouragement, then. But also an awareness that even more is needed if this European adventure is going to be a successful one.