Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi is confident his players will be ready for a first European adventure if they manage to grasp the prize dangling before them.
The Seagulls suffered a setback on Thursday evening when they went down 4-1 at Newcastle in the battle of the Premier League’s top-six gatecrashers.
However, they return to action against relegated Southampton on Sunday knowing wins in two of their last three games – against the Saints, champions elect Manchester City and Aston Villa – will secure a place in the top six and the rewards that would bring.
Reflecting on a bruising evening on Tyneside, De Zerbi said: “We are not used to playing three games in a week and we suffered a lot.
“There are many players – for example Moises Caicedo, Pervis [Estupinan] in the first half – they didn’t play well, but I love them. They have to learn to play two games in four days.
“Next year we will be better, we will be ready to play every day.”
The defeat at St James’ Park came in Brighton’s fourth game in 15 days, a run which includes famous victories over Manchester United and Arsenal, but also a 5-1 home drubbing by Everton.
De Zerbi felt he had no option but to leave on-loan Chelsea defender Levi Colwill out of the matchday squad in the north east with Alexis Mac Allister, Julio Enciso and Evan Ferguson starting on the bench.
With injuries biting deep into his squad – he was also without Solly March, Adam Lallana, Adam Webster, Joel Veltman, Jakub Moder, Jeremy Sarmiento, Enock Mwepu and Tariq Lamptey – the Italian admitted he had been presented with a selection headache.
However, he added: “Yes, but we have to be strong in a difficult period, a tough period. I don’t like making any excuses, but we have eight, nine, I don’t know, I don’t remember how many injuries we have now.
“We are playing four games in 12 days. The first XI today, Colwill wasn’t available to play, Mac Allister can’t play 90 minutes today and 90 minutes on Sunday, Welbeck, Buonanotte, Gilmour and Undav the same.”
De Zerbi expects to have 20-year-old Colwill, who was rested at Newcastle as a result of fatigue, back in the fold for Sunday’s game.