Promotion-chasing Brighton and Hove Albion escaped with a draw from the Boxing Day fixture at Griffin Park as goalkeeper David Stockdale denied Brentford a deserved win. The Bees had the better of it against their South Coast opponents, who started the day third in the Sky Bet Championship, but could not find the crucial goal. They were only prevented from getting it, and the win that would probably have resulted, by Brighton stopper Stockdale, who made a series of saves including one from James Tarkowski that defied belief.
Apart from a spell at the start of the second half after a tactical switch, Brentford held the upper hand. But they could not find a way through. Brighton had a few chances but were content to defend deep and wait for mistakes, which were few and far between. Brentford pressed throughout but could not get the goal and had to settle for a point.
The traditional festive fixture – played between two good Championship teams in fine form – started at a frantic pace. Brighton began the afternoon with a flatter looking 4-4-2 system and that allowed Brentford to find space between their line. But with Ranjiv van La Parra a danger on the right, allied with the movement of strikers James Wilson and Tomer Hemed, the visitors were more fluid than their formation suggested. They also looked to press high up the pitch and get the ball forward quickly. They often looked for a ball in behind the Brentford central defenders, using the pace of Wilson in particular.
It was Brentford that started the better. They had control of early possession and territory and while they needed to be wary of that quick direct pass, The Bees were the team that came closest to opening the scoring the first quarter. Sergi Canós had the best chance, firing a Lasse Vibe cross over the bar from ten yards, and the Spaniard was denied again soon after when Tarkowski found him after a weaving run from back to front. Tarkowski then headed Jake Bidwell’s corner wide.
At the other end a van La Parra cross almost set up a goal for Hemed but the ball cannoned off the striker and wide. And soon after the same two players combined but Hemed’s effort from a van La Parra cross was saved by David Button. But as the half wore on Brentford started to dominate. When Brighton got the ball forward it was coming back with controlled, attacking aggression from the hosts, who were using the extra man in midfield to great effect and backing themselves to use their energetic style to snuff out any counter attacks. The visitors’ pressing game had also wilted as Brentford passed through them.
The one thing Brentford did not have to show from a fine first half hour was a goal. They had a sight when Canós robbed Lewis Dunk and the ball was worked via Vibe and Judge to John Swift but his shot was blocked. Judge fired a free kick in to a defensive wall and then blasted wide from a little further out before Swift found Vibe after a dart forward and then saw a shot blocked after receiving the ball back. Judge had a chip saved, Stockdale saved low from Ryan Woods and Swift blasted wide after another fine move.
But as half time approached Brighton were holding on. There was no doubt Brentford had the upper hand but Stockdale had not been forced in to any saves that he would not expect to make and most of the home side’s efforts were coming from outside the penalty area. Woods should probably have done better late in the half when he met a Canós cross 16 yards out but his effort sailed high and wide. Brentford’s best chance of the first 45 probably came in stoppage time when a Bidwell cross was flicked on by Canós to Vibe at the far post, having turned clear of the covering defender his touch was heavy and the ball was hacked away.
Brighton had a couple of openings themselves late in the first half of a remarkably open contest and both fell to Hemed. The first came when he picked up a loose ball 25 yards out and let fly with a shot that Button gathered. The second was in the dying seconds of the half when a Jamie Murphy cross was nodded down by van La Parra and Hemed’s shot on the swivel was again saved by Button. But the visitors would have known they were second best in the first period, albeit their defensive organisation – and a fine display from Bruno at right back in particular – meant Brentford had not produced as much as they could have done with a lot of possession.
The visitors made a change at the break. They sacrificed striker Wilson to bring Andrew Crofts in to the centre of the pitch and pushed Beram Kayal in to a more advanced role as part of a five-man midfield. Brentford had an early sight of goal when Canós found space but his shot was blocked. And it was a different contest in the early stages of the second period. The extra ballast in midfield gave Brighton a more solid platform and the gaps Judge, Swift and Canós had found in the first half were no longer apparent.
Brighton should probably have taken the lead ten minutes in to the second half when Brentford were caught out from a midfield flick, Kayal found Murphy 18 yards out with most of the goal to aim at but he curled a shot wide of the far post. But as the game approached the hour mark, The Bees started to take control again. They were dealing with Brighton’s extra man and finding pockets of space in central areas. Canós had a shot blocked after nice interplay on the edge of the penalty area involving Vibe and Nico Yennaris and the Spanish attacker had another effort cleared after a nice turn.
Woods blasted over following a short corner and then missed the target again from distance soon after as Brentford started to apply late pressure. As the minutes ticked down, it was The Bees that were looking for the winning goal and Stockdale was keeping his team in it. He tipped a fierce effort from Judge over the bar after the Irishman had weaved past three defenders and then pushed a curling shot from the same man away. The best save of the lot came from a Tarkowski header, when the centre back met a Judge cross with a powerful header that looked set for the bottom corner before Stockdale went full stretch to his right to push it out. It was an unbelievable save and the moment of the match.
Substitute Philipp Hofmann headed wide as Brentford continue to press for the goal and Bidwell looped a header inches over the crossbar. Hofmann had a golden chance when he met a Tarkowski cross but he headed straight at Stockdale and Sam Saunders curled a shot over the bar from a short corner. Brighton attempted the odd counter attack late on but seemed content for their point, earned for them by a fine goalkeeping display by Stockdale.
Brentford: Button; Yennaris, Dean, Tarkowski, Bidwell; Woods (sub Saunders 85 mins), Diagouraga; Canós (sub McCormack 76 mins), Judge, Swift; Vibe (sub Hofmann 76 mins)
Subs (not used): Bonham, O’Connell, McEachran, Jota
Bookings: Bidwell (80 mins) (fourth of season)
Brighton and Hove Albion: Stockdale; Bruno, Greer (sub Goldson 74 mins), Dunk, Calderón; van La Parra, Kayal, Stephens, Murphy; Wilson (sub Crofts h/t), Hemed (sub Manu 68 mins)
Subs (not used): Maenpaa, Goldson, Ince, Zamora, Chicksen
Bookings: Greer (15 mins), Stephens (55 mins), Dunk (75 mins)
Attendance: 12,202 (1,648 away fans)