SAINTS legend Rickie Lambert rates former team-mate James Ward-Prowse as one of the best ball-strikers he has played alongside – and is backing him to inspire Premier League survival.

Ward-Prowse is one of only two current Saints first-teamers who played for the club during the halcyon days of Lambert’s five-year St Mary's career.

The 24 year-old had only just left school when he made his Saints debut alongside Lambert in 2011.

Now, nearly five years after the last of his 235 Saints appearances, Lambert is delighted to see the midfielder flourishing under Ralph Hasenhuttl.

“Prowsey is one of the best, if not the best, set-piece takers and strikers of a ball I’ve come across,” said Lambert, who played alongside the likes of Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling during his time at Liverpool.

“It’s great to see he’s had a new lease of life and been given a green light to get forward.

“I’ve always said he should be scoring free-kicks to get his confidence and it’s brilliant to see he’s hitting the back of the net now.

“With his technique he should be scoring at least five to ten goals a season.

“Under the new manager you can see the enjoyment and hunger and desire is back and hopefully he can push on again.”

As a boyhood Liverpool fan now living back in his home city, Lambert was especially pleased to see Ward-Prowse’s stunning goal in last month’s 2-1 win against Everton.

Daily Echo: James Ward-Prowse scores against Everton

“That’s exactly what Prowsey’s about, that’s what I saw in him when he came through,” continued Lambert.

“He can hit them from anywhere, he’s got a great eye for a pass and can put it on a dime.

“Confidence comes with time. He’s definitely got the ability and will now have the belief in himself that he can do it in the Premier League.

“If this manager can give him that confidence he will come on in leaps and bounds.

“He’s always been a fit lad. Even when he came in at 17 he could handle himself.

“But the sharpness and desire and hunger comes when the manager likes you.

“If you know he likes you and is playing you then you look fitter and stronger because you know you’ve got the manager’s back.”

Daily Echo: Rickie Lambert and James Ward-Prowse celebrate a goal in 2013

Ward-Prowse has scored three of his 15 Saints goals in the last six matches, having been restricted to 12 appearances during Hughes’ nine months in charge.

“Under [Mark] Hughes it wasn’t going so well,” continued Lambert.

“He was changing the midfield a lot and the formation a little which makes it hard for youngsters to get any fluidity to their play.

“But it’s good to see they’re getting back to bringing in youngsters as that’s what Southampton’s renowned for.

“I know they’ve got a young lad [Michael] Obafemi, who can terrify a few defenders from the little glimpses I've seen.”

It is five years since Lambert, who will be 37 tomorrow, left Saints for Liverpool after scoring 117 goals in five memorable seasons at St Mary’s.

He keeps abreast of goings-on via assistant coach Kelvin Davis, another former teammate, and was surprised by last week’s home defeat against Cardiff City, the last of his nine clubs.

But he is confident Saints will stay in the Premier League for a seventh successive season since he helped inspire back-to-back promotions.

“I think a draw against Cardiff would have been disappointing for Southampton fans so to lose it like that at the end must have been a big blow to the lads,” continued Lambert.

“It’s the worst way to lose. You get yourself back in the game, you’re happy to take the point and then you let them sneak a win. I was devastated for them.”

Lambert is well aware of what Cardiff are capable of.

He played alongside many of last Saturday’s team, including injury-time heart-breaker Kenneth Zohore, when they were a mid-table Championship team during the 2016-17 season.

“Cardiff can do that to teams, especially from set pieces,” he said.

“What they’ve done in the last two years is absolutely brilliant.

“They’ve got some good characters and will be fighting till the end. I think they’ll be one of four or five fighting to stay out of one position.

“Southampton might be another but by the end of the season they can push away from that mini-league.”

Lambert’s loyalties will be split when Jurgen Klopp’s title-chasing Liverpool visit St Mary’s in April. But he has also been impressed by Hasenhuttl.

“You can definitely see similarities with Klopp on the touchline and football-wise you can see what he’s trying to do,” he continued. “It’s attacking, which the Southampton fans would definitely want.

“I can definitely see a change from the last manager, which is good, and I’ve heard good things come out of the camp.”

Two of Saints’ next three games are at Arsenal and Manchester United but they have a must-win home game against Fulham in between.

“It’s going to be hard because teams are picking up points around them,” continued Lambert.

“They might be a little surprised that they’re back in it, especially after a good run going into three games they thought they’d get quite a few points from.

“But that’s the Premier League – every team can beat you if you’re not right on it.

“The players know they’re in a fight now but I think they’ve got more than enough, especially going forward, to get out of it.

“It’s a hard league to stay in but I’m sure they’re going to do it. Then I think they’ll spend a bit of money to push on next season.”