It was beautiful while it lasted. Arsenal pushed Manchester City closer than anyone could have imagined at the start of the season but on a glorious sun-kissed May day in north London, their title dream died with a humbling defeat to a brilliant Brighton team that killed it with cleverness.
City will win their third title in succession if Arsenal do not win at Nottingham Forest on Saturday evening or if they beat Frank Lampard’s mediocre Chelsea side at the Etihad on Sunday. If they do not win it then, they will win it at Brighton the following midweek or Brentford the following weekend.
City’s 3-0 victory at Everton was their eleventh league victory in succession. It is inconceivable they will not win one of their next three. The battle between them and Arsenal has been enthralling but if City’s triumph was not a formality before this match, it is a formality now. ‘It feels like there is no hope,’ Arsenal skipper Martin Odegaard admitted after the game.
This 3-0 defeat was a sad way for Arsenal’s challenge to come to a close. They were utterly outplayed by Roberto de Zerbi’s side in front of their own fans. They looked exhausted, mentally and physically. They were outfought, and outwitted tactically. There were times – the majority of the match, actually – when Brighton toyed with them.
They raged against the dying of the light in brief moments in the closing minutes. Home-grown heroes Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson came off the bench and injected urgency and desperation into their quest for an equaliser after Julio Enciso’s 50th minute opener.
Brighton picked up a deserved three points at Arsenal on Sunday, as teenaged forward Julio Enciso scored the opener
Deniz Undav doubled the lead with a classy chip after a botched clearance from former Brighton player Leandro Trossard
Pervis Estupinan then pounced on a spilled save from Aaron Ramsdale to make it 3-0 in second half injury time
But four minutes from the end, former Brighton star Leandro Trossard tried to flick on a short pass from Aaron Ramsdale, the ball rebounded to Deniz Undav and he lobbed the ball over the Arsenal goalkeeper in a high arc and watched it bounce into the net.
The clock had ticked over into eight minutes of added time when Brighton completed Arsenal’s misery. Ramsdale pushed out a shot from Undav but it fell straight to Estupinan and he forced it back past the goalkeeper.
De Zerbi ran down the touchline and did a knee-slide, Jose Mourinho-style. The architect of this stunning victory, his star is very much in the ascendant. Brighton are now in prime position to qualify for European competition.
Many of Arsenal’s fans had begun to stream out by then, which was less than their team deserved. Their renaissance has been one of the highlights of this season. The play of Bukayo Saka and Odegaard, in particular, has been a privilege to watch. It is a bitter disappointment to get so close but there is no shame in losing out to a City side that is close to invincible.
Some screamed that they had ‘bottled it’. That is not true. Arsenal did not choke. They just could not live with a City side that wins so relentlessly.
Only City can do that. Arsenal’s task now will be to add to their ranks from a position of strength. They should make West Ham’s Declan Rice their prime target and prepare for another title challenge next season.
The tone for their demise was set in the opening minutes.
The early part of the game was dominated by a simmering feud between Gabriel Martinelli and most of the Brighton team. It began soon after the whistle when Kaoru Mitoma rose to head a ball in his own half and Martinelli flattened him by thudding his arm into his upper body.
On another day at another ground with another referee, it could have been a red card. Andrew Madley decided it was not even worth a yellow. If Martinelli thought that meant he had escaped retribution, he was mistaken.
A few minutes later, as he tried to wriggle away from Moises Caicedo, Caicedo felled him with a clumsy challenge and Martinelli caught his ankle awkwardly in the turf.
The Arsenal players were eager for Caicedo to be punished, of course. Again, Mr Madley kept his cards in his pocket. Martinelli struggled to shake the injury off and when he was clattered in an aerial challenge by Evan Ferguson, he needed some time to get back to his feet. Soon afterwards, he was replaced by former Brighton forward, Leandro Trossard.
Trossard did not take long to make his mark. He cut inside Caicedo 15 minutes before the interval but even though his shot beat Jason Steele, it grazed the top of the Brighton crossbar.
Five minutes later, Brighton carved out the best opening of the game so far. Mitoma turned Ben White one way and then the other on the right side of the Arsenal box and made room for a cross. Aaron Ramsdale got a hand to it but the deflection pushed it towards Julio Enciso. It was slightly behind the Paraguay forward and he hooked his left foot shot over the bar.
The Seagulls are now on the verge of European qualification after an excellent season that has seen them beat Liverpool and Arsenal, while also doing the double over Chelsea and Manchester United
Arsenal’s title hopes are now all but over, and Manchester City can clinch the title by beating Chelsea in their next game
They had their chances, but lacked sharpness in the final third and failed to trouble David Steele in the Brighton goal
After being eight points clear at the top of the league at the start of April, the Gunners have won just two of their last seven
Enciso got another chance five minutes after the break and this time, he took it. Mitoma tormented poor White again down the Brighton left and when Pervis Estupinan volleyed a cross into the ground, it bounced across the six yard box and Enciso stooped to glance a header past Ramsdale.
Substitute Reiss Nelson drove a fierce shot just wide midway through the half as the atmosphere inside the Emirates grew febrile and resentful. Former Arsenal forward Danny Welbeck came on for Brighton and nearly scored with a low drive. Mitoma dragged White into yet another beautiful trap to set up another attack.
Arsenal tried but Brighton were simply too good for them. De Zerbi’s team taught them a football lesson. Undav’s lob and Estupinan’s rebound put them out of their misery. They are a young team. There is no reason why they should not be even better next season.
As the crowd ebbed away, Patrick Vieira, their former captain stood on the sideline in his role as an analyst for a broadcaster and a crowd gathered to sing his name. He and the Invincibles of 2003-04 represent the final frontier for Mikel Arteta’s team. They came close to winning the club’s first title since then but in the end, the prize eluded them.