Tuesday 20 August 2019

'You've got to go out and be brave' - Shane Duffy holds the key to Brighton's hopes of shocking Manchester City

 

Shane Duffy. Photo: Getty Images
Shane Duffy. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

When Shane Duffy describes his most dangerous opponents as "the little ones" he sounds like Gulliver vexed by Lilliputians.

And Manchester City have lots of "little ones," who will test Brighton's fine centre-back pairing to distraction in the first of the weekend's FA Cup semi-finals.

Duffy, who has a strong bond with Lewis Dunk, Brighton's other centre-half, had the same problem in a 3-0 defeat at Chelsea in midweek.

"Last night I had (Olivier) Giroud, but it was all little ones around him so it was quite tough," Duffy said the following morning. "You had to read where he was going to flick it, or the one-twos. It's the same with Man City, they've got little ones in and around you."

Defending is Duffy's raison d'etre, but with his 27 Republic of Ireland caps, 6ft 4inch frame and 377 headed clearances in 69 Premier League appearances, he comes armed with other talents.

Duffy and Dunk could be Brighton's most important players at both ends of the Wembley pitch, because each likes rumbling into the opposition penalty box for corners and free-kicks. Set-pieces, many believe, are the best hope for Chris Hughton's side to reach the club's first FA Cup final since 1983 - the year they were also relegated from the top-flight.

So is Duffy a goal threat to Pep Guardiola's maestros? "Yeah, if we get a free-kick," he smiles. "Obviously we're going to be very busy defensively, and if we try to keep as much out as possible they could have a bad day: one of those games where it clicks for us but it doesn't click for them. That's what you hope. And with a couple of set-pieces we can use them to our advantage."

This is a reasonable strategy for a club 15th in the table and only five points off the relegation zone. But before Duffy can go hunting upfield, he must negate the kaleidoscopic passing of a side who have been in semi-finals "hundreds of times."

The art of frustrating City's demonic play is, he says, to force them wide: "If you dive in with them they'll just move it around you. The key is that you don't want to leave the space for them to run into, space for them to get shots, so you try to keep it compact with as little space as possible for the little ones.

"You know if it goes wide, with crosses, you'll fancy yourself against crosses, so it's all about keeping it tight as a unit tight, narrow. I think we've got people in there who can deal with crosses. If you open up against them they've got the spaces and the pockets, the runners; the space in behind for the Aguero's and Jesus's to run into. That's what they want.

"You've just got to go out there and try to be brave defensively, and catch them on the day when they haven't turned up and we have."

Duffy was still stiff from the 3-0 thumping at Stamford Bridge but is implacable in all circumstances, as you would expect from someone who lost three litres of blood from internal bleeding in 2010 from a freak training ground accident at Everton (he was kneed in the chest by a goalkeeper, which opened an artery next to his liver), and who had to rebuild his career on loan at Burnley, Scunthorpe and Yeovil, before moving to Blackburn.

Signing him for £4m in August 2016 was one of Brighton's best moves of Tony Bloom's ownership and Duffy is too important to be rested. The Chelsea game was his 39th this season for club and country.

"This season's been a little bit up and down, we expected a bit better, but we're still in there, five points clear of the bottom three with seven games left," he says.

"So it's still a healthy position where we've got good games at home we feel we can win. If we win a couple of those we can still finish with a very good season - if we get to the FA Cup final and finish higher up the league - so that's our aim."

'I've got a lot more than just heading the ball. It just sort of works that I stick to that'

Turning the page mentally after Stamford Bridge and last week's loss to Southampton sounds tricky, but Duffy believes Brighton can: "It's quite tough, especially if you're losing games a lot, but I think Saturday is just completely different to a normal league game, and you've just got to be excited for it.

"I know our main priority is the Premier League but you've just got to get excited and look forward to the challenge - go and enjoy the day and the occasion and try to put a good performance in - and with this club you never know.

"We're a strong squad, where everyone's been through highs and lows, and everyone's experienced enough to bring it all together. We've got a great manager who knows not to get too high and not to get too low, which bounces off on the players.

"We lost heavily yesterday but people will be coming in today with smiles. People will be talking about it but it won't be getting us too down. We just kick on because we know we're not a bad team so we believe in that.

"It (relegation) is between us, Cardiff and a couple of other teams. You don't want to rely on Cardiff losing, and you want it to do it yourself, and be proud of getting away from it yourself - not relying on other teams."

If he deserves more credit beyond his "451 duels won" and 547 clearances on the ground and in the air he is happy to be seen as the enforcer to Dunk's more cultured passer.

He says: "I can do the ugly (job) and he can do the pretty one. We both know it, and it works. He's a big defender too. He likes heading the ball and blocking the ball. Since the day I got here it's never been a competition. We just gelled straight away. If you start fighting with another centre-half it's not going to work.

"I know I'm not just a stopper. I know I have a lot more to my game that that. But that's what people always think about it. Obviously the manager here knows I've got a lot more than just heading the ball. It just sort of works that I stick to that while Lewis hits his long diagonal passes. I just go along with it."

The biggest game of his career thus far was "the last 16 of the Euros (2016)]. We played France. It was a big game for my country, a big night for us.

"This would be up there. I've been in semi-finals and finals with Everton when I was younger - on the bench - but I've never actually played."

Even against the gifted little ones, Duffy "thrives against teams that on paper are better than us." He says: "I love it. I love the big occasions, and Saturday is a huge occasion for this club, and these players." Defending is paramount, but City should not relax if he pops up in their penalty box. Duffy is promising to have "a right go at it."

  • Manchester City v Brighton, Live BBC1, 5.30

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