Championship Analysis – Ricky Lambert stars again in Southampton’s late show at Millwall
Southampton’s Ricky Lambert won the Championship Player of the Year award during midweek, and it’s safe to say he underlined the reason in bold on Saturday, scoring a hat-trick, including two penalties in the last five minutes, as the Saints came from behind to beat Millwall 3-2 at the New Den. It was Lambert’s fourth hat-trick of the season and took his tally to 28 goals, and the late fightback ensured his side stayed top of the division, which had looked in severe jeopardy in the closing stages of Saturday’s action.
30-year-old Lambert is playing the best football of his life this season, but like many strikers in the six-foot plus club, he has had to do his bulking up in the lower leagues to reach this level, and it hasn’t always been plain sailing. He demonstrated his raw potential as a teenager at Macclesfield, prompting then League One Stockport County to pay £300,000 for his services in 2002, but he blew hot and cold during his spell at Edgeley Road and only found his feet again when he moved to League Two Rochdale three seasons later, a transfer which he has since cited to be a career-saver. Later promoted with Bristol Rovers, Lambert disproved those who doubted he would cope at League One level by netting 51 times in his three seasons at the Memorial Stadium.
It’s always risky shelling out big cash for strikers, notoriously confidence players, but Southampton have clearly got their £1m money’s worth with Lambert. While there’s no guarantee he will cut it in the Premier League next season should the Saints go up, one can look at Grant Holt – Lambert’s former strike partner at Rochdale – as an encouraging benchmark. Holt has had a fine season with Norwich so far, and the Saints’ style of play is remarkably similar to that of the Canaries. Some pundits have suggested Lambert as a possible wildcard for England’s Euro 2012 squad. Whoever picks it could do a lot worse.
Southampton’s late fightback would have been particularly gut-wreching for any West Ham or Reading fans keeping an eye on the New Den. The Hammers have been remarkably wasteful recently and have gone from being in a position to take full control of the division to one barely clinging on to automatic promotion. On Saturday Sam Allardyce’s side, despite a last-gasp equaliser at Leeds, dropped out of the top two for the first time since November. Had Lambert not netted his two penalties, it would be Reading leading the table. The Royals’ eight-match winning run was ended by Doncaster on Tuesday, but they still made it nine out of ten by thumping Barnsley at Oakwell.
The play-off picture is no clearer, largely due to four of the contenders going head-to-head on Saturday. Birmingham leapfrogged Middlesbrough with a 3-0 win at St Andrew’s, and Blackpool did likewise to Brighton with a 3-1 win at Bloomfield Road. Only a point separates Birmingham in fourth and Brighton in ninth. Cardiff missed a great chance to knock Birmingham down a place on Sunday when they were held by Burnley.
Ipswich were the only team in the bottom half to win, meaning little changed in the relegation shake-up. Portsmouth picked up their first point in four matches but remain eight points adrift of safety, and the troubled club look likely to lose more first-team players before Thursday’s loan transfer deadline in a bid to save cash.