IN many ways facing lowly Dagenham & Redbridge away was a bigger test of Saints’ title winning credentials than home matches against Huddersfield and Exeter.
At St Mary’s we know Saints are very good indeed.
There is no reason that shouldn’t continue until the end of the season.
So while the wins against Huddersfield and Exeter were utterly emphatic and hugely impressive, you kind of had a sneaking suspicion Saints would have found a way to have won those, even if it wasn’t by three and four-goal margins.
But the real difference between the play-offs and the automatic promotion places, and Saints’ stated aim of top spot, will be away form.
They have so many more games to play on the road this season.
Many of them are at grounds far less salubrious than St Mary’s, which will make life hard.
Not only will the surroundings be a culture shock, the ground tight and the atmosphere intense, but the pitch is also likely to be less to Saints’ liking.
The wide, carpet like surface at St Mary’s is perfect for Saints’ slick passing game under Nigel Adkins.
Going to tighter grounds with pitches that cut up means you are likely to have to adapt your game .
You will also come under fire of the shelling variety where your opponents, used to conditions on their home patch, will be big, strong, physical and direct.
You are unlikely to beat these sides by playing fancy football.
You have to stand up to the battering you get, match them for work rate and effort and then allow your superior quality to shine through and bag you the three points.
It is Saints’ ability to do that consistently that will go a long way to determining where they finish this season.
They faced just such a test at Dagenham & Redbridge, who set out playing 4-5-1 and, until they went behind, were happy just to soak up pressure and hope for an occasional set piece to get a goal.
The first challenge was to break them down.
Procession The first half was a procession of Saints chances but they couldn’t get their noses in front.
Guly do Prado set the tone with a header on target on seven minutes but it was a fairly easy take for veteran goalkeeper Tony Roberts.
Alex Chamberlain’s right-wing cross was creeping in before Roberts turned it over.
Lambert came close again on 27 minutes after a good set-piece that saw a corner played short to Danny Butterfield who lifted the ball into the area where Lambert generated a lot of power behind his 12-yard header but directed it wide.
After Chamberlain had twice more gone close, Dagenham had their first and only shot of the entire first half.
Romain Vincelot got on the end of a flick-on but, from a tight angle, he fired across goal and off target.
There was still time for one more Saints chance before half-time, Chamberlain’s right-wing cross being met by Do Prado at the far post but his flicked header went wide.
Saints started the second half knowing that a goal should set them on their way to victory – and they got one two minutes after the restart.
Lambert had the ball at his feet and laid it back to Ryan Dickson outside the area.
He knocked it into the area first time where Adam Lallana was on hand to produce an acrobatic scissor kick of a volley that flew into the net from ten yards out.
Dagenham, who haven’t won at home since early October, responded by switching to 4-4-2 and suddenly they posed a bit more of a threat to Saints who now had something to defend.
Peter Gain fired in a shot that took a deflection to force Kelvin Davis to make his first save of the match before Chaplow’s fierce drive from 20 yards fizzed just over the bar.
Radhi Jaidi’s goalbound header from a corner was blocked as Saints continued to look for a second goal that would kill off Dagenham.
But they had to survive a scare on 72 minutes when Josh Scott went down in the area, prompting huge appeals for a penalty which were waved away while in the meantime the ball struck the post.
After that, though, Saints wasted little time in putting the result beyond doubt as Do Prado scored a top quality goal – his sixth of the season – on 75 minutes.
Great determination Sub Lee Barnard initially lost the ball after a misjudged dummy but showed great determination to win it back.
He slid it into Do Prado down the right channel and the Brazilian brilliantly cut inside in the area, leaving a defender on the floor, and then produced a superb low finish across Roberts and into the far corner.
Will Antwi had a chance to reduce the arrears with a half volley from 12 yards out but he blazed over.
But Scott flicked home a header from a right-wing cross with six minutes remaining to set up an exciting finish.
It got pretty tense when Gavin Tomlin’s 25-yard free kick hit the underside of the bar but was ruled not to have crossed the line by the officials.
But the nerves were eased in stoppage time as Lambert powered forward, got away with what appeared to be a handball and lifted the bouncing ball over Roberts to ensure an important win.