If the next generation is anything to go by, Brighton appear in rude health. A side including several teenagers extended their flawless start to the season and cruised into the third round of the Carabao Cup courtesy of expertly taken goals by Jakub Moder and Andi Zeqiri. The team may have been unrecognisable compared with the one that has made an impressive start in the Premier League but they played with an identical swagger.
No wonder Graham Potter was unconcerned about making wholesale changes. For many, this was a first foray into competitive first-team action and while a game against awkward opponents that thrive off set pieces had the makings of an upset, a slick Brighton side outclassed Cardiff from start to finish. At 31, the goalkeeper Jason Steele was the eldest player in the starting lineup and the average age of the outfield players in front of him was just 20, while Evan Ferguson, 16, was brought on for his debut late on.
“It was a young team but I thought they showed courage, quality and they had to defend against a strong, physical side,” Potter said. “To keep a clean sheet here is not easy. You’re playing against a Championship team with a physicality that you will not get in the Under-23s, that is for sure. Long throws, free-kicks, deep free-kicks, corners, they have such size and physicality that it is almost impossible to deal with the first ball and you have to keep fighting until it is cleared. We had an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old at centre-back. It was a young team and that is why I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Steele gained first-hand experience of just how awkward these assignments can be in January, when he made four penalty shootout saves to help Brighton avoid an FA Cup third-round defeat along the M4 at Newport of League Two. But here they reigned supreme from the first whistle and after nine minutes the Poland midfielder Moder coolly slotted in after latching on to a wonderful pass by Enock Mwepu, an £18m summer signing from Red Bull Salzburg who was arguably the game’s outstanding player.
Brighton zipped the ball around with confidence, defenders happily striding forward to kick-start attacks and Zeqiri could have doubled their advantage 10 minutes later but pulled his shot wide after being set free by the centre-back Haydon Roberts. Mwepu proved difficult to contain and the wing-back superbly controlled a lofted pass before finding Taylor Richards on the edge of the box but the 20-year-old sent his first-time shot over the bar. Cardiff, who themselves made eight changes, started with a burst but lacked rhythm and to make matters worse the captain, Sean Morrison, one of three players retained from Saturday, went off with a knee injury.
Cardiff roused after the break, Ryan Wintle going close to an equaliser after meeting Perry Ng’s cross but any optimism was short-lived and by the time James Collins sent a downward header against the crossbar, the visitors had increased their lead. Richards nudged the ball to the Ecuador midfielder Moisés Caicedo. He kept his balance to pick out the striker, who nestled the ball into the corner with a fine first-time finish. Brighton could have sealed victory but Smithies made a fine save to deny the teenage striker Marc Leonard after Will Vaulks inadvertently nudged Mwepu’s pass into his path.
Kieffer Moore arrived from the bench late on as Cardiff searched for a route back into the game but it was the goalscoring defender Aden Flint who came closest, Steele pawing his header to safety. Moore has been linked to Wolves but Mick McCarthy is desperate for the striker to stay. “I don’t want a bombshell dropping on my plate in the next few days,” the Cardiff manager said.
“He’s so valuable to us. If I was a Premier League side, would I be interested? I probably would. We all love Kieffer here and want him to stay.”