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Can Roberto De Zerbi take Brighton into the Champions League?

Brighton & Hove Albion manager Roberto De Zerbi has opened up on his life in Sussex after turning the Seagulls into one of the most enjoyable teams to watch in the Premier League.

There was some scepticism when Brighton reached out to the then-Shakhtar Donetsk boss to replace Graham Potter, who went to Chelsea at the start of last season.

However, the 44-year-old excelled during his first year in the Premier League, guiding the Amex outfit to their first-ever European qualification as they embark on the Europa League campaign next week.

Last season’s success was no beginner’s luck, as the Italian tactician made sure to remind everyone in the early stage of the new campaign.

Before the Premier League hit the pause button to accommodate September’s international break, Brighton had won three of their four league matches and netted a division-high 12 goals.

Even in a 3-1 home loss to West Ham United, they boasted 78% ball possession and 26 shots on goal, including ten on target, but were wasteful in the front third. De Zerbi says he is loving life in England.

“I want to enjoy,” he told The Athletic. “I’m living a dream and to live a dream you have to enjoy. I’m enjoying it a lot, being in Brighton, Shakhtar, Sassuolo. First of all is to enjoy.”

“Second is to keep the mentality when I was a player. I wanted to be a protagonist on the pitch. To be a protagonist you have to keep the ball, to have the ball.

“From it starts the ball possession. I was the No 10. You win the game through the No 10, No 11, No 9 and No 7 because they are the players with more quality.

“And to show their quality, they have to be put in the right situations to play.”

Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United will serve a stern test of the Seagulls’ European credentials, although it could also be an opportunity to announce their candidacy for a top-four finish.

While such a prospect would’ve been deemed improbable or even impossible before De Zerbi’s arrival, it’s now a distinct possibility, especially given how well his side has fared in 2023.

Playing on multiple fronts will throw Brighton into unfamiliar territory as they gear up for their maiden continental campaign, but the Italian’s system has worked wonders to date.

European commitments could set back the Seagulls’ domestic progress unless De Zerbi can quickly adapt his players to a tight fixture schedule and maintain a positive climate in East Sussex when the games keep coming.

By the looks of things, Brighton won’t have to worry about Chelsea as a potential adversary in a prospective top-four race, plus they could cause further disarray at Old Trafford with a win this weekend.

The Seagulls remain the last Premier League side to have won at the Theatre of Dreams, doing so on Erik ten Hag’s home debut in August 2022 under Potter.

If you assume Arsenal and Manchester City will go head-to-head for the title, the two remaining Champions League spots remain up for grabs, with four clubs potentially gunning for those places.

Besides Brighton and Man Utd, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have shown plenty of early promise in 2023/24, suggesting a top-four battle could be more enthralling than last season.

The latter duo’s recent resurgence doesn’t play into Brighton’s hands.

With last year’s surprise package, Newcastle United, possibly ruling themselves out of the race with a dismal start to the season, the Seagulls appear the ideal candidates to fill the void.

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