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Southampton 3 Tranmere Rovers 0
THERE are certain games in a season that carry far more importance than they might seem to.
Tranmere’s visit to St Mary’s was just one of those for Saints.
On the face of it, this was a match that wasn’t going to get many pulses racing.
Few supporters would have been circling December 12 on their calendars when the fixture list came out.
But the implications of it went far deeper than most casual observers might have appreciated.
Saints are now embarking on one of their biggest weeks of the season.
Not Saints’ best performance by any stretch, but this could prove to be a vital win in their season. If the momentum they have built can carry them through this massive week unscathed then anything is possible this season.Gordon Simpson
Firstly, they host Norwich in the southern area semi-finals of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tomorrow.
The Canaries represent the biggest hurdle between Saints and a first Wembley final in 18 years.
Then comes arguably their biggest league game of the season, or at least their most difficult – Leeds away.
Saints have been on an impressive run of form recently.
Four wins on the trot in all competitions heading into the Tranmere game had lifted expectations greatly.
Talk of the play-offs is becoming more widespread, as people start to realise how strong a team is taking shape at Saints.
Fans and people associated with the club are starting to believe some long-awaited success might be just around the corner.
But, for all the increased hope, it is all so fragile and delicate.
The bubble could well and truly have burst this week had Saints not been careful.
It still could, but Saints have given themselves a wonderful platform on which to go into this critical period.
A loss at home to second-from-bottom Tranmere would have been a huge psychological blow.
Anything less than three points would have put a massive dampener on the current enthusiasm enveloping Saints.
Going into games against Norwich, and particularly Leeds, off the back of a poor result against Tranmere would have meant a sense of apprehension, rather than bullishness.
That is why Alan Pardew described Saturday’s contest as “the most important game of our season” in his programme notes.
Matches that carry such meaning are rarely simple, though.
Pardew was wary of the fans getting frustrated and negative if things didn’t go Saints’ way from the off.
Although Tranmere’s league position was far from impressive, their five-match unbeaten run coming into Saturday suggested they would be no pushovers.
But expectations are high again at St Mary’s and, as with the Wycombe game, the supporters anticipated a comfortable win. So it was little surprise that, despite Pardew’s calls, the groans – and at times boos – started to spread through the stands during a dismal first half.
But it is testament to the improving mentality of the squad that they can overcome that now.
Last season, those frustrations would probably have shackled them and doomed them to a poor result.
But the quality and belief that is in the team can help drag them out of it.
And that was all Saints needed against Tranmere – a few moments where they could work an opportunity for their extra ability to come through.
There weren’t many of those in the first half, though, which was one of the most forgettable seen in a long time at St Mary’s.
Saints struggled to create anything going forward, while Tranmere carved out a few half chances, but never forced Bartosz Bialkowski into a save.
The visitors’ 4-5-1 formation, that became a 4-3-3 when attacking, restrained Saints.
Ian Thomas-Moore had a decent opening on 12 minutes, pulling away into space at the back post, but he volleyed tamely over.
There were a few pockets of boos as Saints struggled to keep hold of the ball or create anything.
John Welsh curled a free-kick just wide on 31 minutes, before Rickie Lambert and Ian Goodison were both booked after getting into a shoving match.
The first shot on goal arrived on 37 mintues, as Lambert drilled in an effort from 25 yards, but Luke Daniels got down to stop the strike.
But Saints came out fired up after the break and started to work themselves into some threatening situations in the last third of the pitch.
After Gareth Edds went close for Tranmere with a free-kick, Saints made the breakthrough in the 52nd minute, as the ball was worked in to David Connolly on the edge of the box.
He turned and fed a clever pass to the left side of the area for marauding fullback Dan Harding to rifle a shot across goal and into the corner.
Morgan Schneiderlin, who was booked minutes before for a foul, was then lucky not to be sent off for a trip on Ash Taylor.
Another James corner was delivered into the box and Broomes inexplicably rose with both hands high in the air, deflecting the ball away.
Referee Danny McDermid awarded the penalty – and just a yellow card for Broomes – and Lambert powered the ball into Daniels’ right-hand corner to double the lead.
Pardew then made his first change, swapping Schneiderlin for Paul Wotton.
Lambert made it 3-0, stepping up to a free-kick from 30 yards and firing an absolute missile past the despairing Daniels and into the top corner.
Lambert had a great chance for a hat-trick soon after, as Daniels dropped a corner under pressure from him, but the Saints striker somehow couldn’t turn the ball in from less than a yard out.
Papa Waigo was introduced for Connolly, before Lambert received a standing ovation as he was substituted for Jacob Mellis in the 83rd minute.
There were even a few tongue-in-cheek chants of “Lambert for England” from the Northam End.
Saints saw out the game comfortably, making it just one defeat in 15 and the added bonus of a fourth clean sheet in the league.