Brighton enjoyed a sixth place finish last term, qualifying for the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history - what did/has that accomplishment meant to the fanbase as a whole?
Charlie Haffenden: Qualifying for Europe has always been beyond our fanbase’s wildest dreams so to actually achieve it was like nothing we’ve ever experienced. From the Goldstone to the Withdean to the Amex and now we’re here. What’s even more sensational is the fact we’re tipped as one of the favourites to win!
Roberto De Zerbi has now been in charge of the Seagulls for just over a year now - how would you evaluate the job that the Italian has done at the football club thus far?
CH: I don’t think De Zerbi could have done a better job so far. I genuinely thought we’d peaked under Graham Potter, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at just how much potential we still had – and still have – to improve further. The style of football is immense and there’s a reason Pep Guardiola is envious.
Brighton have carried last season’s momentum into this Premier League campaign, with a strong start to the season (5 wins and 1 loss) - what are the expectations this season?
CH: I’m hoping we can establish ourselves as a European outfit now that we’re in such a strong position to do so – and yes, even after losing the likes of Mac Allister and Caicedo. It doesn’t seem to matter a great deal about individuals in this team, but rather the way the group understands De Zerbi’s vision.
Interestingly enough, both Aston Villa and Brighton lost their opening group stages match in the respective European competitions that they are competing in - do you think that’s a result of two sides who aren’t well versed in dealing with the added fixture congestion so early on in the season or is it something else?
CH: The defeats were perhaps the pressure getting to both sides. It was a huge night – the first-ever European game for Brighton and then the first in well over a decade for Villa. Now that occasion is out of the way, the two teams should be able to play with less pressure and more freedom.
Villa qualified for the Europa Conference League playoffs due to a 2-1 win at Villa Park on the final day of the Premier League season last term. Given that this fixture is taking place during the relatively early days of the current league campaign, what sort of match are you expecting to see at Villa Park on Sunday?
CH: Villa were deserved winners at the tail end of last season and they have been for the last four meetings with Brighton. I think this time it will swing in Albion’s favour, though, especially as Emery’s men look fatigued as anything and the injuries are racking up.
What sort of lineup should we expect to see from Brighton on Saturday?
CH: It’s going to be a very strong team set out by De Zerbi as he knows just how tough of a place Villa Park is to go to. I reckon we could see something like this: Steele (GK); Lamptey, Van Hecke, Dunk, Estupiñan; Gilmour, Dahoud; March, Fati, Mitoma; Ferguson.
Both fixtures between the two sides ended 2-1 last season, what is your prediction for the final score?
CH: Based on my forecast that it could well swing Brighton’s way this time (and I report on Villa for a living so I know how threatening they can be), I’m hoping we can switch the 2-1 around and in our favour. If not, then perhaps an exhilarating 2-2.