Scoring late winners is starting to become something of a knack for Kaoru Mitoma. Six days after his wonder strike knocked holders Liverpool out of the FA Cup, the Japan winger was at it again as Brighton overcame a dogged display from a Bournemouth team fighting for their life against relegation to maintain their own remarkable push for Europe.
By Mitoma’s recent standards, this had been a relatively quiet afternoon until the last five minutes as the visitors frustrated Roberto De Zerbi’s side and could even have taken all three points had they been more clinical. Yet having now scored five goals in his last seven appearances, the 25-year-old who wrote his university thesis on the art of dribbling is the player making all the difference for Brighton at the moment as they moved to within two points of fifth-placed Tottenham.
“He didn’t play the best game in his life but he can always score. I can never substitute him - I wanted to give him a break but we knew he could score,” said a delighted De Zerbi. “We have to keep thinking positively and the next step is a big game against Crystal Palace.”
With Alexis Mac Allister serving a suspension, De Zerbi had resisted the temptation to recall Moisés Caicedo after his flirtation with Arsenal during the transfer window and instead left the Ecuador midfielder on the bench until the second half as his side chased the victory. He was greeted by loud cheers from the home supporters when he replaced Billy Gilmour just before the hour mark, with compatriot and fellow substitute Jeremy Sarmiento providing the cross for Mitoma to loop in his header in the dying minutes.
Meanwhile, January signings Dango Ouattara, Antoine Semenyo and Hamed Traorè impressed for the visitors, whose new American owner Bill Foley shelled out more than £70m on six new players in a bid to halt their rapid slide down the table. Bournemouth must have viewed this fixture with trepidation given Brighton’s recent form but they acquitted themselves well here and look capable of mounting a survival push over the coming months.
“We should have got something out of the game,” admitted Gary O’Neil. “We caused them some problems but didn’t take our opportunities.”
It took a well-timed challenge on the edge of his penalty area early on from Neto to stop Deniz Undav racing through after an excellent through ball from Tariq Lamptey. After a comedy of errors which began with the Bournemouth goalkeeper gifting possession to Undav and saw the Brighton striker have three attempts to score on his full Premier League debut, only to be denied by Chris Mepham, Neto and then the post, it seemed only a matter of time.
Yet a lightning quick break down the left flank that ended with Jefferson Lerma lashing just wide after being set up by Jaidon Anthony was a warning that Brighton might not have things all their own way. Ouattara could then consider himself very unlucky not to be awarded a penalty after going down under a challenge from Pervis Estupiñán but the VAR agreed with the referee Craig Pawson’s decision to O’Neil’s clear frustration. Danny Welbeck then headed Solly March’s pinpoint cross straight at Neto from point-blank range before just failing to divert a cross from Undav inside the post as Brighton finished the half strongly.
Caicedo was greeted by loud cheers from the home supporters when he replaced Gilmour just before the hour mark, with Sarmiento almost making an instant impact after coming on at the same time when he shot straight at Neto. De Zerbi was grateful for Estupiñán’s block to deny Semenyo after the Ghana striker had wriggled into the area yet his side struggled to create any clearcut chances of their own until the final minutes. Mitoma may have thought he had blown his chance when Neto saved his effort with five minutes left but it was Brighton who once again had the last laugh.