Brighton and West Ham seal spots in Europa League knockout round

Brighton’s Brazilian striker #09 Joao Pedro (R) fights for the ball with AEK’s Greek defender #12 Lazaros Rota (L) during the UEFA Europa League Group B football match between AEK Athens FC and Brighton and Hove Albion FC at the Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens on November 30, 2023. AFP

Brighton booked their place in the Europa League knockout stage with a 1-0 win at AEK Athens, while West Ham also advanced after a late Tomas Soucek goal against Backa Topola on Thursday.

Roberto De Zerbi’s side are competing in Europe for the first time in their history and the Seagulls’ adventure will continue into the new year thanks to Joao Pedro’s winner in Greece.

Brighton sit two points above Marseille at the top of Group B, with the French club able to regain pole position if they beat Ajax later on Thursday.

Europa League group winners go through to the last 16 automatically, while the runners-up play in a two-legged knockout round play-off in February against a team who finish third in a Champions League group.

Albion will vie for first place in the group when Marseille visit the Amex Stadium in the final round of fixtures in December.

The Greeks laid seige to Brighton’s goal for a period in the first half, with Orbelin Pineda denied by keeper Bart Verbruggen.

Steven Zuber became engaged in a virtually one-on-one battle with the Seagulls as the Swiss international’s effort was tipped over by Verbruggen.

Zuber flashed a header wide from the resulting corner, then evaded Joel Veltman and unloaded a powerful shot that was deflected onto the post by Lewis Dunk before Mijat Gacinovic put the rebound wide.

Gacinovic’s strike was well stopped by Verbruggen, whose heroics laid the foundation for Brighton to snatch the lead.

Damian Szymanski fouled Joao Pedro and the Brazilian striker picked himself up to slot home the penalty in the 55th minute.

That made the Brighton man the top scorer in the Europa League with five goals, three of those having been penalties against AEK Athens.

AEK’s fate was sealed when they were reduced to 10 men in the 85th minute when Gacinovic earned a second booking for a foul on Veltman.

Brighton fan Norman Cook, known as DJ Fatboy Slim, was set to perform in Athens after the game, with the Albion supporters who made the trip in party mood.

Soucek strikes late

West Ham became the second Premier League club to move into the knockout round as Soucek’s late goal saw off Serbian minnows Backa Topola 1-0.

Soucek’s 89th-minute volley from Maxwel Cornet’s cross sealed the victory that put his team top of Group A.

The Czech midfielder has scored in his last five matches for club and country, after also netting a last-gasp winner at Burnley last weekend.

Second-placed Freiburg thrashed Olympiakos 5-0 to join West Ham in the knockout round.

The Hammers will seal first place if they avoid defeat against the German side in east London in December.

In Group C, Sparta Prague beat Real Betis 1-0 to close wxithin two points of the first-placed Spanish club and keep alive their bid to reach the knockout stage.

Atalanta wrapped up top spot in Group D after a 1-1 draw against second-placed Sporting Lisbon, who are also through to the knockout round.

Rennes’ 3-0 win against Maccabi Haifa took the French team to the top of Group F and into the knockout round.

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