Brighton are in relegation trouble and after this match it would be folly
to say that West Brom cannot escape relegation. Because this preposterous encounter proved that many strange things happen in football. Sam Allardyce’s side remain far adrift of safety but will take great hope from a match in which Kyle Bartley scored the winning goal and Brighton missed two penalties either side of having a goal ruled out amid scenes of rank farce.
Brighton were already trailing to Bartley’s close-range header when the match lapsed into absurdity just before the half hour, when Lewis Dunk thought he had struck an equaliser for Brighton, only for his supposed goal to be disallowed, then allowed, then disallowed again. The referee, Lee Mason, appeared to be as confused as the players during a three-minute period in which the teams took turns to argue their case with the official, who ultimately needed assistance from VAR to explain what he had done.
It transpired that Mason had blown his whistle to indicate that Brighton could take the free-kick, which Dunk duly did from just outside the D. But then, with the ball travelling towards the net, the referee blew the whistle a second time after realising that West Brom’s goalkeeper, Sam Johnstone, had not been ready to face the shot. Because the second blow came before the ball crossed the line, the goal could not stand. VAR adjudicated on the timing while players from both sides surrounded the referee.
“Never seen that happen before but highlights the nonsensity of a law that stops the side who’ve been fouled gaining an advantage,” argued Gary Lineker on twitter. While the debate raged on social media and elsewhere, poor Mason looked in need of a good rest as he made his way off the pitch at half-time, with players and staff from both clubs still demanding clarification. For once it was probably a good thing that no fans were in attendance.
It has been a chastening month for Mason, who was stood down earlier in February after being the VAR official when red cards were issued to West Ham’s Tomas Soucek and Southampton’s Jan Bednarek before being rescinded later. The free-kick fiasco was not the first contentious decision in this match, as an earlier intervention by VAR had led to Brighton being awarded a penalty for a handball by Okay Yokuslu. West Brom got lucky that time as well, since Pascal Gross fired the spot kick against the crossbar.
If the officiating was of low quality, so too was much of the play. Brighton’s weakness in defending set pieces was obvious from the start, with West Brom tormenting them from corners and long throw-ins. It was no surprise when Kyle Bartley rose unchallenged to guide a header in from a corner in the 11th minute. Brighton livened up a little after that but then their familiar finishing problems came to the fore. Gross’ penalty miss was the most glaring but they were guilty of further sloppiness, particularly during the four minutes of stoppage time added on to the end of the first half to compensate for the time spent solving the mystery of Dunk’s disallowed goal. First Aaron Connolly had a decent shot across goal turned away by Johnstone, then Neil Maupay scuffed an effort wide from close range.
Maupay had another attempt just before the break, poking off a low shot that Johnstone kicked away. Between those two shots by Maupay, West Brom nearly increased their lead, but Robert Sanchez made an excellent stop to foil Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Brighton continued their patient, pretty buildups in the second half but their impotence in front of goal persisted. Connolly and Leandro Trossard each spurned presentable chances. When Conor Townsend chopped down Gross in the box in the 75th minute, it seemed implausible that Brighton would miss another spot kick. Danny Welbeck, on a substitute, stepped up and kept his shot down but steered it on to a post. West Brom could barely believe their luck. They or Fulham might just clamber out of relegation trouble after all. Maybe at Brighton’s expense.