This was a performance to savour for Gary O’Neil, even if Wolves couldn’t quite make it the perfect night for their manager and travelling supporters by recording a fourth successive top-flight win for the first time in more than 50 years.
When these two teams last met back in August at Molineux, such was Brighton’s dominance that Roberto De Zerbi’s side found themselves 4-0 up after only 55 minutes. But five months on, Wolves showed the rapid progress they have made under the former Bournemouth manager – only leaders Liverpool have taken more points since the start of December – and perhaps should have snatched the victory had their forwards been more clinical in the dying minutes.
“We looked like a team and we stuck together at a ground that is very difficult to come to,” said O’Neil, whose side face West Brom in a Black Country derby in the FA Cup this weekend. “If anyone isn’t already aware of the importance of that game then we will make sure they are by Sunday.”
Yet on a night when James Milner surpassed Ryan Giggs in second place on the list of most Premier League appearances, Brighton also lacked a cutting edge in front of goal as they were held to a second successive stalemate in the Premier League. They may have set a top-flight record of nine matches unbeaten here but this still felt like a big opportunity missed.
“I’m disappointed – we didn’t play the best game but we created the conditions to win,” reflected De Zerbi, who admitted that his side are struggling with a lengthy injury list. “To be in seventh place after the problems we have had this season, we should be very proud.”
Milner’s inclusion from the start meant that only Gareth Barry has now made more Premier League appearances, with the 38-year-old having racked up 633 since his debut for Leeds back on 10 November 2002 when he was only 16. With only 20 to go before he catches Barry, you wouldn’t bet against him achieving it. “I’ve hopefully got a few more in me,” said Milner. “I’ve had some luck, I’ve worked hard and you have to enjoy it to put the work in every day. I’ve been fortunate to play for some great clubs.”
The absence of Kaoru Mitoma and Simon Adingra on international duty meant De Zerbi deployed the former England international on the left flank but even Milner would acknowledge that his days as a rampaging winger are long gone. Brighton laboured in attack throughout against a well-organised Wolves team that made use of Pedro Neto’s considerable pace on the break on his first start since the end of October in an unfamiliar central striker role.
O’Neil had acknowledged beforehand that this game would be a test of whether his side can push “towards the next level” after a season that has so far exceeded expectations. Having weathered an early storm when Milner came close to getting on the end of cross at the back post and Facundo Buonanotte then somehow failed to direct his header on target from a similar position after Danny Welbeck’s flick on found him unmarked, Neto was inches away from giving Wolves the lead with a curling shot from outside the box.
There was a heated moment when Craig Dawson clashed with Billy Gilmour just before half-time, with De Zerbi briefly squaring up with O’Neil before tempers were quickly cooled. Yet Matheus Cunha didn’t help matters after being booked for kicking out at Gilmour when he continued his protests as the players made their way down the tunnel.
The Brazil forward almost began the second half with the perfect riposte after a mazy dribble from Neto played him in but Jason Steele blocked the first shot and was relieved to see him blaze over from close range. It required a last-ditch tackle from Nélson Semedo to deny João Pedro a shooting opportunity before Max Kilman turned a cross from Jack Hinshelwood against his own post, even if the Brighton defender appeared to have been offside.
De Zerbi’s side have racked up more passes than any other team in the Premier League this season but they still lack incisiveness – something Neto could not be accused of. He was a constant menace on the break and Steele had to be fully alert to turn his cross from a tight angle away to safety.
Milner’s evening was brought to an end with the introduction of Adam Lallana with 20 minutes to play, although it was Wolves who had the chances to snatch the victory late on as Brighton piled forward in search of a winner.
Neto dragged his shot wide of the target after finding space down the right flank for the umpteenth time before Mario Lemina latched on to Matheus Cunha’s pass but couldn’t find a way past Steele to emulate Bill McGarry’s 1972 side.