Ipswich Town are a different proposition this season, but were second-best to Brighton & Hove Albion
Blues boss Mick McCarthy refused to criticise his players after this defeat but will surely be disappointed at the manner in which his team surrendered top spot in the Championship.
Granted, Brighton came into the game second top to Ipswich only on goal difference, after three single-goal wins, and looked set to pose dogged opposition.
But the Blues are a different animal this season and possess an extra bite in attack that had already wounded several opponents.
Therefore, the visitors would not have expected such a toothless performance from their hosts in the first half which, combined with some exquisite approach play from Chris Hughton’s men, saw the Seagulls fly into a 2-0 half-time lead.
Too many Town players had off-days, especially in the first half, the ever-willing Freddie Sears the only man to come out of the first 45 minutes with a modicum of credit, and it was only when Ipswich introduced David McGoldrick at the interval, did they ever look like winning the game.
Don’t take anything away from Brighton though who, having ground out three close wins prior to Saturday, played some fantastic football.
Prior to kick-off, Kazenga LuaLua had been highlighted as Brighton’s dangerman after a sizzling start to the season, and he gave rookie full-back Josh Emmanuel a torrid time in the first half.
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LuaLua had been Brighton’s match-winner in three of their league and cup wins this season but he was one of several class acts at the weekend.
Cameroon left-back Gaeten Bong dissected the home defence on more than one occasion with his pinpoint balls.
His first was fed over the top and picked up by LuaLua, who shrugged off Emmanuel down the right before firing brilliantly past Dean Gerken and into the goal on 10 minutes.
LuaLua had already tested Gerken before the opener, Brighton having looked fluid from the off, with the classy Dale Stephens and the all-action Beram Kayal dominating the midfield against the unusually-ineffective Cole Skuse and recent signing from Brentford, Jonathan Douglas.
After LuaLua’s opener, the Seagulls wasted little time doubling the lead. Maitland-Niles was booked for felling LuaLua and Stephens whipped a vicious ball in from the right that got the slightest of touches off Hemed’s head, the ball landing in the far corner.
Town had not been at the races and former Blues loanee Liam Rosenior almost made it three, but fired a left-foot shot wide of the far post, having been afforded the freedom of Portman Road by Town’s defence.
Sam Baldock was next to go close for Albion but, with Gerken narrowing the striker’s angle, fired wide with the outside of his right boot having latched on to another superb ball over the top from Bong.
Hughton’s side could have been four up at the break without argument, but it was the way Town had backed off their opponents that caused most concern.
That coupled with a lack of drive or control going forward made for a very disappointing first 45 minutes, with only Sears going close with a shot from a clever free-kick that went narrowly wide.
They could have been handed a lifeline though just before the break, but referee Keith Hill chose not to give Uwe Hunemeier a second yellow for a high boot on Ryan Fraser, having earlier cautioned him for an arm to the face of Sears.
McCarthy had to do something at half-time and the introduction of McGoldrick sparked Town into life.
He was immediately in the thick of the action with some good early touches, having replaced the ineffective Maitland-Niles.
The other half-time sub was new Polish centre-back Piotr Malarcyzk, who replaced Emmanuel, Luke Chambers moving to right back.
Town’s new signing almost made a dream start to life in Suffolk, firing home a volley from 20 yards, only to have the goal ruled out for offside.
That came moments after Stephens had almost added to the visitors’ two-goal advantage, the midfielder striking the post from outside the area, after good play from Hemed, and Fraser had been denied a blatant penalty when Lewis Dunk, on as a half-time sub for Hunemeier, handled in the box.
The Blues did pull a goal back on 54 minutes however. McGoldrick found Fraser with a pass from the centre of midfield and after the Scotsman slipped in the overlapping Brett Pitman, the former Bournemouth striker’s near post shot crept under Stockdale and hit the far post.
However, the ball rebounded kindly to Sears, who took a touch before blasting home from close range.
Instead of Ipswich kicking on though, the impressive Hemed almost scored a second, hitting the side netting after Malarcyzk had been caught flat-footed with a diagonal ball from right to left.
Jonas Knudsen was then on hand to block Stephens’ goalbound shot, before Rosenior and Hemed fired wide and high respectively.
Hemed had been immense in attack for Brighton, but his profligacy looked to have cost his side dear in the 65th minute when Bruno caught Fraser in the box and McGoldrick trickled his spot kick past Stockdale.
But he needn’t have worried and after Bong found LuaLua, the winger’s deflected cross was headed home by the Israeli, via Tommy Smith’s shoulder, two minutes later.
That knocked the stuffing out of McGoldrick-inspired Town, who had launched a gutsy comeback, and LuaLua almost made it four, but his shot was cleared.
Hemed then had a shot deflected over by Malarcyzk, before the striker’s header was cleared by Smith.
Fraser went close for Town with a long range volley that sailed just wide, but Albion always looked dangerous, and after Dunk headed over, Gerken raced out of his goal to deny Rosenior from putting a gloss on proceedings.