Roberto De Zerbi hailed Brighton’s last-gasp 1-0 victory over Marseille to top Europa League Group B as a “historic moment” in the club’s history.
Joao Pedro smashed in an 89th-minute winner at the Amex Stadium to make sure the Seagulls avoided the play-off round and instead slotted straight into the last 16.
Italian De Zerbi, who masterminded progressing from a group that included Ajax and AEK Athens along with the French 1993 European Cup winners, said: “We haven’t won anything…yet, but we are really happy and proud.
“I told the players before the game that the game was more important for us than them. Marseille are used to playing in European competitions.
“To finish at the top of the table is a historical moment.
“The atmosphere during the game was incredible. The crowd were a 12th player like I’ve never seen before.
“It is important because we don’t have to play an extra game.
“After going 2-0 down in Marseille in the first game, we changed everything and after that game we won four games in a row with four clean sheets in a row. That is incredible.”
De Zerbi dedicated the result to the players and fans of former club Foggia – who lost a Serie C title decider to Gennaro Gattuso-managed Pisa in 2016.
His revenge on the now Marseille boss came courtesy of Joao Pedro – who ended the group stage with six goals and the competition’s leading scorer.
The Brazilian was threaded through by Pascal Gross before skipping past a tackle and thumping into the top corner, making the Amex erupt and De Zerbi jump into the crowd.
De Zerbi said of his goalscorer: “Joao is playing very well. He is becoming a great player in mentality – which playing for his national team has helped.
“The qualities of Joao are clear. We want to help him become a great player.”
Joao Pedro added: “I’m very happy. These are the best moments of my life. Thank you to my team-mates, they always support me.
“I’m very happy to be top scorer in the Europa League. To be top of the table, in the league or top scorer, you need to keep going through hard work.”
Marseille just needed a draw to avoid a play-off match against one of the teams that finished third in the Champions League.
Jonathan Clauss and Amine Harit both hit the woodwork before the visitors parked the bus, only to be undone by Brighton’s late winner.
Boss Gattuso said: “We knew what type of match this would be. We knew what level Brighton play at and the quality they have.
“We prepared to face them but their level of quality was too strong.
“We didn’t lack courage but it is the quality in the end that showed.”