For Brighton & Hove Albion, this was one of those scenarios when the age-old saying about sport’s value being in the taking part rang true.
It was never likely to be about the winning, not against Premier League favourites with all the massed qualities that Manchester City bring. In some ways it is no bad thing this one is ticked off now. Brighton can get on with the task in hand with a different kind of focus.
City were not at their slickest but still possessed more than enough finesse to dominate, cruise through the game and pick up three points thanks to two late goals.
Pep Guardiola’s satisfaction to begin the campaign with an exercise in control and a straightforward win was clear. They did everything required, with gallons of potential in the tank. But do not go reading too much into it now.
“Last season I was sitting here after the Sunderland game and you said: ‘You are the favourites, most beautiful, handsome and nice guys in the league.’ And after, you know what happened last season? Chelsea killed us,” he said. “OK, we accept what the people say but all we have to try is to improve and improve.”
The speed of their attacking patterns is an area he wants to tweak, and it was notable how many dynamic players were in reserve. What a bench – Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling came on for late cameos.
Guardiola was pleased to see his defence was relatively untroubled. The presence of Vincent Kompany always makes a difference, Kyle Walker slotted in comfortably and his fellow summer signing, Ederson, in goal, had only one nerve-wracking moment to contend with.
Brighton could have been handed a gentler first course at English football’s top table. Perhaps a Watford or Huddersfield or Burnley or so the stereotype would have it … As it turned out the highly tuned and luxuriously reinforced ambition of Guardiola’s City ensured the excitement was mixed with an understandable dose of trepidation.
The chasm in terms of resources was made plain by the fact City’s new collection of full-backs cost more than the funds raised to construct the Amex Stadium, but it was the football gap Brighton were keen to mind.
First of all they had to master their own nerves. The sense of heady occasion, the mark of history, all the anticipation that had gripped this part of the south coast seemed to weigh heavily on the Brighton players for the first 20 minutes. Chris Hughton was conscious that this was a special day, and a tricky one for his players to manage calmly.
“It’s understandable,” he said. “Today was very much a club day. This club had a very difficult history – there were a lot of supporters here who were not able to come not so long ago. Our first game in the Premier League was going to be a big occasion but the fact Man City were coming made it even bigger.”
The return of top-flight football for the first time since 1983, and the depths of their plummet in the meantime, meant emotions were charged as this boisterous crowd rubbed their eyes and welcomed this big step with spine-tingling noise.
Making inroads against City was not the priority. Containment was. Their illustrious opponents hugged the ball, retaining possession for long stretches.
David Silva’s creative spark shone. Gabriel Jesus had flashes in the spotlight in search of a breakthrough. On one occasion the Brazilian caught the ball at speed and it bounced off his leg and scooped off his arm and in. Michael Oliver, the referee, immediately spotted the infringement and there was no question of a goal.
City stepped up a gear after the break and the crowd held its collective breath for an Agüero-must-score moment. He opened up his body and looked set for a deadly finish but his shot was strangely off beam.
Then Brighton found another gear of their own. Shane Duffy stabbed in a shot. Lewis Dunk came close and when the ball pinballed out to Davy Pröpper the Dutchman lashed wide.
The pendulum swung back as City regained momentum and began probing again. De Bruyne carved room for himself to strike with ferocity. The ball hit Dunk’s hand and despite City’s protestations the official showed no inclination to award a penalty.
The visitors would not wait long to clinch the points, though. When Dale Stephens lost possession City broke with clinical precision. Kevin De Bruyne clipped the ball to Silva, whose cute first- touch pass was threaded perfectly for Agüero. The ball was guided past Ryan with unerring cool.
There would be no way back for Brighton when City doubled their lead three minutes later as Dunk turned Fernandinho’s cross into his own net.
All in all it was a lesson for Brighton. How much they take on board, and how quickly, will be the focus for Hughton. “Now we dust ourselves down,” he said. “It’s a very tough league.
“You have to be able to park these defeats very, very quickly. We have to make sure we have a squad to compete in this league by the end of this window.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010