6:00pm Tuesday 10th April 2012
By Gordon Simpson
IT is incredible to think there were ever any doubts about whether Rickie Lambert had enough ability to regularly score goals in the Championship.
As he dropped a shoulder to go past Patrick McCarthy at Selhurst Park yesterday before firing a sweetly-struck left foot shot into the far corner it was abundantly obvious that, if anything, he is simply too good for the division.
The striker’s second goal of the afternoon – and surely one of his finest of the season – marked his 30th of the campaign.
It is an astonishing haul for someone who, before this term, had never played above League One level.
Having entered the Championship for the first time at the age of 29, there were always going to be some questions about whether or not he could make the step up.
Not only has he done that – winning the section’s player of the year award recently – but he has established himself as by far and away the division’s most threatening striker.
His importance to Saints cannot be understated. It is ridiculous, and an insult to the sterling efforts of other members of the squad, to label Nigel Adkins’ side a “one-man team” as some seem keen to do.
But there is no doubt that Lambert is the most vital cog in the Saints machine right now.
His absence with a groin injury in last week’s 3-0 defeat at Blackpool proved that.
Without him, Saints’ attack was blunted. With him back, the air of menace returned.
Lambert’s mere presence scares opposing defences and he has become Saints’ ultimate comfort blanket.
Yes, there is an overreliance on him – but any team with a 30-goal striker has that. It’s impossible not to.
At 30-years-old now, you might be expecting Lambert’s career to start declining. Yet he has improved so dramatically with age that it seems he is only now hitting his prime.
His two strikes against Palace were vintage Lambert. The first, which put Saints 1-0 up shortly before half-time, saw him react quickest at the back post to head in Danny Butterfield’s cross from the right.
Centre half McCarthy appeared to slightly misjudge the ball, which sailed over him. And, while full-back Nathaniel Clyne was caught flat-footed, Lambert was not, steaming in to power home from close range.
His second was a goal that simply oozed class. Lambert received a pass 30 yards out, turned and raced towards the penalty area.
He shaped to shoot with his right foot from just outside the box, before bamboozling McCarthy and dragging the ball past him onto his left side.
With space having opened up, he fired a crisp left foot shot into the far bottom corner.
Make no mistake, these were two vital goals for Saints. A slip-up at Selhurst Park could have had serious ramifications for the club’s automatic promotion hopes.
But Saints are very much on the verge of a return to the Premier League now.
If they do make the leap, Lambert will face similar questions to the ones he did last summer, about whether he can cut it in the top flight.
What yesterday – and the entire season – has proved is that he deserves the chance.
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