Brighton & Hove Albion took another step closer towards automatic promotion from the Sky Bet Championship as they swept the Brewers aside 4-1 at the AMEX Community Stadium.
It was always going to be a tough assignment for the Brewers up against a side that had drawn one and lost one on home turf this season, winning all the rest of their games in deepest Sussex. Once Tomer Hemed pounced on twelve minutes to give the home side the lead the Brewers faced an uphill struggle and clinical second half strikes from Baldock, Hemed with a second, from the penalty spot, and substitute Glenn Murray ensured a comfortable victory for Chris Hughton's side. Burton briefly threatened to make it an awkward afternoon when Michael Kightly superbly rattled home a free kick at 3-0 down but the home side just had too much quality in forward positions and always looked a threat with wingers Anthony Knockaert and Solly March a constant threat throughout the afternoon.
Nigel Clough made two enforced changes for the daunting trip to promotion chasing Brighton. Damien McCrory, an injury casualty in the victory over Wolves last weekend, failed to recover from a tight hamstring meaning that Tom Flanagan continued at left back with Tom Naylor drafted into the side at right back. Last weekend's late goal hero, Cauley Woodrow was missing with a tight calf meaning that Lucas Akins was restored to the side on the right wing, Jackson Irvine operating in an advanced role just behind lone striker Marvin Sordell. There was a surprise on the bench for the Brewers as Luke Varney made a welcome return to bolster the ranks after his debut injury at Watford at the start of January.
After some initial jousting in midfield Brighton made the first serious assualt on the Burton goal on five minutes, Bruno and dangerman Knockaert led a swift counter down Albion's left, Sam Baldock, overlapping was ablew to whip over a cross that came out to Steve Sidwell, the midfielder driving a low sdhot comfortably wide of Jon McLaughlin's post.
Knockaert was in need of attention after a challenge from Flanagan but it didnt stop the mercurial Frenchman having his say when the home side took the lead on twelve minutes. a crossfield ball from Solly March on the opposite flank picked out Knockaert who was able to bring the ball under his spell and work room for a cross on his left foot. The cross beat everyone stationed on the near post and found itw way through to Tomer HEMED, the striker who beat the Brewers from twelve yards in the reverse fixture, sweeping home from closer range this time to put the hosts fiurmly in the ascendency.
Knoackaert fancied a piece of the action himself and on the quarter of an hour mark he was cutting inside and letting fly with a long range shot that McLaughlin was always comfortably behind. Understandly the goal helped the home side settle into their stride and as the wintry conditions began to ease a little they began to string their passes together with ever increasing confidence.
Albion probably should have had a penalty as the forst half wore on. Lucas Akins had the ball just inside the box, going away from goal and Dale Stephens challenge was clumsy as Akins was upended, referee Martin unmoved. On closer inspection it should have probably been a spot kick to the Brewers and who knows what difference that might have gone on to make.
Easy on the eye going forwards, Brighton were also disciplined and resolute at the back affording Albion little in the way of chances at the opposite end. In an effort to put more pressure on the home goal the Brewers switched from their 4-4-1-1 starting formation with Lucas Akins joining Sordell in attack and Christensen moving out wide to the right hand side.
Brighton stepped things up a gear as half time beckoned, searching for the second goal that would almost certainly put the game beyond the Brewers. Skipper John Mousinho had to extend a leg out to cut out a searching cross from Sebastian Pocognoli and when Solly March was allowed to drift into dangerous territory Albion's defence were relieved to see his low cross evade everyone in blue and white awaiting the cross in the centre of the penalty area.
Half time: Brighton & HA 1-0 Burton Albion
Within two minutes of the second half starting the home side doubled their advantage in simple fashion. The right hand side of the Brewers defence was left gaping open as the ball was chipped forward for March to race into, heading into the penalty area he had time to look up and send a teasing ball to the near post when Sam BALDOCK was able to apply a simple finish.
Brighton keeper David Stockdale was called into action shortly after when a neat link up between Lasse Christensen and Sordell gave the Albion striker chance to get a left foot shot away, albeit a comfortable save for ther Seagulls stopper.
Christensen then worked room for a cross in from the left that was destined for Akins in the middle until Lewis Dunk stretched out a leg to deny him.
Brighton were able to extend their lead to three on 56 minutes courtesy of HEMED's second of the afternoon, this time from the penalty spot. Solly March was the man to win, jinking his way into the penalty area before being nudged over by Mousinho. Referee Stephen Martin thought for a moment before deciding that there was enough contact to award the penalty.
Nigel Clough sent on Matt Palmer for the last half hour or so with Luke Murphy departing the action. Brighton now seemed content to sit deep and invite the Brewers onto them, ready to counter when the chance arose. Michael Kightly drifted inside and took the chance to test Stockdale with a right foot effort but, at his near post, the keeper was always behind it.
Albion thought they had at least got themselves a goal on 69 minutes when Sordell showed good skill to turn and lose his man inside the box. Unfortunately for the Brewers front man he was denied his first goal in Burton colours by a superb save from Stockdale rushing out and getting a vital deflection on the ball to send it wide of the post.
Brighton made a triple substitution with just under twenty minutes to go but there was no danger of them going defensive for the remainder of the game. Beram Kayal, Chuba Akpom and Glenn Murray were all sent on to try and put a gloss on Brighton's victory. Another sign of just what the Brewers were up against just looking at the quality that Chris Hughton was able to call upon from his substitutes bench.
Ironically it was Albion who found the net shortly afterwards, KIGHTLY showing his prowess from set pieces to score for the second game running. Sordell was clumsily brought crashing down just outside the box, in the D, and the man on loan from Burnley put the free kick in the one place that Stockdale could not reach it, right in the top corner, off the post.
It still looked comfortable for the table toppers but when Flanagan curled a shot just over moments later there were a few nervous and anxious voices inside the AMEX.
A second change for Albion came with ten minutes remaining. Christensen was taken out of the fray and Varney was sent on for some important minutes as he looked to regain fitness.
Any hopes Albion had of mounting a late comback were extinguished on 83 minutes as MURRAY made his presence felt. Knockaert, now patrolling the left sent over a delightful cross and nobody tracked the run of the Seagulls striker who was able to glance a header beyond McLaughlin from close range.
Will Miller was sent on for the closing stages replacing Sordell who had completed another hard working stint spearheading the Burton attack and coming within inches of grabbing his first Burton goal.
Akpom looked all set to open his Brighton account at the AMEX in the dying stages linking on the edge of ther box and curling an effort wide.
Miller almost conjured up a second for Albion when he connected with a low cross from Varney but a Brighton defender made sure it ended up over the bar via a deflection.#
Despite three added minutes Albion were not breached again despite the best efforts of Akpom and March, creative until the end. The Brewers had not really expected anything from their visit to the high flying Seagulls and whilst the result wasnt the greatest for Clough and his men, seeing Wigan fall to a 94th minute defeat at Fulham, coupled with Blackburn's inability to grab three points at seemingly doomed Rotherham, would have provided a slight crumb of comfort on the long trip back from the south coast.