Nobody on the fringes of Chris Hughton‘s Premier League team put their hand up when Albion were held at home by West Brom in the fourth round of the FA Cup before sneaking through in the replay.
Yves Bissouma put both hands up with his best performance yet as the Seagulls deservedly reached the quarter-finals for the second season running and only the fourth time in their history.
The Mali midfielder signed in the summer from Lille for just under £14 million was the driving force behind the victory over Derby.
He set up both goals, ran purposefully with the ball, and his appetite to regain possession was infectious.
There are still moments of naivety, understandable at this stage of his development in the English game, but he provided a compelling case to be included in Chris Hughton’s line-up when Albion resume in the league at Leicester later this month.
The recruitment team have potentially unearthed a gem, particularly once he has a better grasp of English.
Hughton said: “You can never tell. But what we have with Bissouma is a very talented player, there is no doubt about it. This is a very competitive league and this is not a player that we brought in for a million pounds or so – we have had a big investment.
“You can see why we have made that investment. I think he has the makings of a very talented player for us. Probably, for someone of that type of ability, it will always be about the consistencies of doing it week in week out and over 90 minutes. Most supporters who have seen enough of him have seen the ability that he has got.
“He’s having English lessons and he’s improving. Probably not to the level where he is comfortable, and his understanding would be a little bit better than his speaking. But he is improving every week and every now and again he’s surprising us.
“The most important thing is his ability. But it can’t not help you if you know the language and you are able to communicate and hear information. It has to help you that way and he is improving.
“The reason why we brought him in was, if I look at the midfield players that we have got in Pascal (Gross), Davy (Propper), Dale (Stephens) and Beram (Kayal), he’s a different type of player to what we have got.
“It’s about developing him in any systems we want to play – a three in midfield, a two in midfield. It’s a different game here, the structure is a little bit different and he’s learning all the time.”
Bissouma combined with Alireza Jahanbakhsh to cut back an inviting cross for Anthony Knockaert (above) to sweep Albion into the lead.
He then confounded Tom Huddlestone on the edge of the box to curl a left-foot shot against the far post, which Jurgen Locadia converted on the rebound into an empty net in first half stoppage time (below).
That ultimately proved decisive as Albion withstood a late wobble prompted by a rare Ashley Cole goal to take their place in Monday night’s draw.
Knockaert’s finish was of the kind Derby manager Frank Lampard produced regularly during his playing career. The Frenchman drifted in from the left to find space and despatch his third goal of the season clinically.
He was the other player to most noticeably press his claims for a place against former club Leicester.
Hughton does not subscribe to the notion that Knockaert, outstanding in the Championship, cannot quite cut it in the Premier League.
“Certainly it’s not a criticism we would have of him,” Hughton said. “For anybody, it is a tougher league. When you’re a wide player, you’re playing against better defences and better full-backs.
“It’s about the part you can play in the game. It’s only about decisions. It would always be a close call. We always know what Anthony can do. Anthony is a player who gives us that something different.
“The fact he hasn’t played as many games as he would like, that would just be personal preferences. Certainly nothing that he is not doing.”
Albion, depleted by injuries, illness which ruled out Davy Propper and Florin Andone’s suspension, were worth their interval cushion.
Derby, disappointing in the opening 45 minutes, improved once Lampard introduced Cole and striker Jack Marriott for the second half.
Even so, Knockaert, Bernardo and substitute Viktor Gyokeres were all denied by busy keeper Kelle Roos before seven-time FA Cup winner Cole ensured an anxious finale with his first goal in his 49th appearance in the competition and first in English football since September 2012.
He headed in a hooked clearance by Dan Burn, unaware of Cole’s presence behind him, as Derby appealed for a penalty for Bernardo’s challenge on lively substitute Florian Jozefzoon.
Derby came from two down twice in the third round to knock out Southampton. Albion, having relinquished 2-0 leads in the league already this year in drawing at West Ham and losing at Fulham, had to hang on in the end.
Their game management could have been better in the final quarter of the contest, but there was no denying the validity of their victory.
The price they have paid is an additional burden. Bissouma’s ban from the quarter-finals for his second booking is a blow. Locadia (floored above), used through the middle in Glenn Murray‘s absence with a calf injury, was in the wars throughout and eventually had to be helped off with a left ankle problem, sustained with no Derby player in his vicinity.
Cardiff’s visit on March 16, FA Cup quarter-final weekend, now has to be rearranged, leaving Albion two matches behind their relegation rivals with the trip to Chelsea to be rescheduled as well.
The pressure could mount as a result, but for now they embark on a warm weather training break relieved by a good performance and result after the league decline since the turn of the year.