Crystal Palace took three shots in this game and their utterly dominant rivals attempted 23. Roy Hodgson will not care one jot. Had his side held on for a draw then this would have been perceived as a completely joyless performance, ground out through necessity and illuminated in part by a first-half goal of admirable initiative from Jean-Philippe Mateta.
Instead, it will be memorable for a quite stunning volley from the substitute Christian Benteke, who arrowed in unstoppably from beyond the far post with the seconds ticking down in injury time. Palace had barely attacked beyond Mateta’s goal but Brighton were left to bitterly rue their failure to add to Joel Veltman’s equaliser.
Some of the walls inside this stadium still display posters bearing information about last season’s iteration of this derby, the most recent game to have been played here in front of a meaningful number of fans. Those concourses feel frozen in time and, with mid-table stasis wearing thin, some Palace fans fear the same applies to their team.
Hodgson sought to start the thaw with five changes from the disastrous home defeat by Burnley. Palace needed to knuckle down for this fixture, more than any other, and were spiky in the opening stages even if they took place almost exclusively in their half. It took 28 minutes for them to attack with any menace and, against opponents who had conceded once in an unbeaten six-game streak, that glimmer of ambition paid the richest of dividends.
Mateta’s goal, his first since scoring a hat-trick for his parent club, Mainz, against Freiberg in November, was quite out of step with prior events. Jordan Ayew set it up following a burst down the right but there was still plenty to do given that when the low cross came in Mateta had his back to goal and Ben White tight to his left shoulder. There was no angle for an orthodox finish but, six yards out and just ahead of the near post, he flashed a spinning first-time backheel past an evidently surprised Robert Sánchez.
Mateta cut short his celebration after erroneously thinking he had been pulled up by Kevin Friend’s whistle. Perhaps VAR is hard-wiring a stymied sense of enjoyment into players but it had no business here. The goal counted and Brighton, who had already failed on multiple occasions to pick their way through such compact ranks, would need ingenuity at the top end to follow their methodical work in the middle third.
Unlike the visitors, the Seagulls had set out feeling entirely comfortable in their own skins. There was an ease with which they manoeuvred the ball; a familiarity in the movement between their forwards. But none of it came to much, a drilled Veltman cross that Cheikhou Kouyaté just nicked away from the poised Neal Maupay being their only work of consequence before Mateta struck. The one-way traffic continued after that bolt from the blue but a 20-yard effort from Veltman that flew wide was as close as they had come when half time arrived.
Graham Potter tasked Danny Welbeck with improving Brighton’s threat in the second half. He was deployed alongside Maupay and had a half-chance immediately, volleying off target from Veltman’s delivery. The hosts, now operating with a back four in the confidence Palace had little inclination to prod at any resulting holes, poured forward and were soon rewarded.
Veltman, nominally the right-back, had not scored since joining Brighton but had been inventive here and by now was operating as de facto winger. Welbeck’s presence made a difference, the ball being diverted away from him in the box as he prepared to shoot. It rolled perfectly for Veltman, who tucked a smart finish inside Vicente Guaita’s near post from 12 yards.
Now Palace had to try and hang on. Guaita blocked from Welbeck and Leandro Trossard, twice, in the same sequence just after the hour; Gary Cahill then thwarted Welbeck and Adam Lallana flashed inches over straight after coming on. The waves of blue shirts showed no sign of abating.
Lallana shot wastefully high again after more good work from Veltman before Benteke, who had replaced Mateta, was wayward with Palace’s first effort since the departed striker’s moment of inspiration.
They only ventured forward one more time and Benteke made it count in the most thrilling way possible.