Southampton's Rickie Lambert sinks Watford
Rickie Lambert’s third hat-trick of the season fired Southampton back to the top of the Championship as a poor Watford were comfortably beaten 3-0 at Vicarage Road.
The Hornets changed goalkeepers for the game but the fourth man to take his place between the posts for them this season, Tomasz Kuszczak, was at fault for the first goal when Lambert headed the visitors into a 13th-minute lead.
He doubled his tally nine minutes later before wrapping up his good afternoon’s work from the penalty spot after the break.
Watford struggled to get going from the whistle and once their opponents had taken command by midway through the first half, they rarely looked like relinquishing their grip on the contest against a side who did not manage an on-target attempt until the last minute of normal time.
Sean Dyche’s response to last week’s disappointing defeat at Crystal Palace was to make five changes, although at least one was enforced.
As expected, Kuszczak replaced Scott Loach in goal, while the Hornets’ second loan signing of the week, Marcello Trotta, also made his debut. With Troy Deeney fit to return, this meant both Chris Iwelumo and Joe Garner dropped to the bench.
Elsewhere, Mark Yeates and Carl Dickinson returned to the starting line-up for the first time since the 3-0 defeat at Birmingham City as Lee Hodson was ill but Craig Forsyth was left out of the matchday squad. Gavin Massey was also not involved in the 16 due to injury.
Despite beating Derby County 4-0 last time out, Nigel Adkins still opted to make two changes to his side, with Danny Butterfield coming in for Dan Harding and Tadanari Lee replacing Billy Sharp. Former Hornets loanee Jack Cork was in the starting line-up but David Connolly had to settle for a place among the replacements.
After a scrappy start to the game in which neither side could retain possession for any length of time, the hosts had the first sight of an opening when a lofted Nyron Nosworthy pass threatened to put Deeney in but keeper Kelvin Davis was alert to the danger and cleared.
But it was Southampton who drew first blood in the 13th minute, with Kuszczak’s first meaningful involvement in a yellow shirt far from auspicious.
There didn’t appear to be too much danger when Butterfield floated in a cross from the right but the on-loan Manchester United keeper came off his line for a ball that he had no real need to come for, or hope of getting. But he then stopped and found himself completely stranded in no man’s land as Lambert’s header looped over him for his 21st of the campaign to give Saints a 1-0 lead.
Kuszczak dealt far better with Adam Lallana’s shot soon after before the hosts had their first attempt when Jonathan Hogg fired well over from the edge of the area after Nosworthy hadn’t been too far away from connecting with the first corner of the match, delivered by Yeates from the right.
The Hornets had still not got going though, when their task became even harder in the 22nd minute.
This time the Saints built patiently before Lallana received the ball towards the left side of the area and laid it back to Lambert, who confidently dispatched a superb first-time right-footed finish past the helpless Kuszczak for his and Southampton’s second.
Lallana’s game was to last just eight more minutes though, before he went off injured and was replaced by Jason Puncheon.
Watford continued to look disjointed and sluggish but they nearly created a chance in the 35th minute when Alex Kacaniklic tricked his way past Butterfield and then accelerated down the left before sending over a decent-looking cross but it was beyond any of his team-mates in the middle.
That opening apart, Dyche’s men rarely threatened their opponents, who went into the break comfortably in command.
Watford would have been hoping to make a positive start to the second half but they really should have been three down within three minutes of the restart.
This time Richard Chaplow was the supplier with a deep cross from the right, which Lambert knocked down to the unmarked Lee, who should have hit the target from eight yards but sliced his left-footed strike wide of Kuszczak’s right-hand post.
Morgan Schneiderlin fired an effort from much further out wide soon after before Jos Hooiveld was the first player to be booked for a foul on John Eustace.
But from the resultant free-kick, Watford might have halved the deficit were it not for some poor communication when, after Yeates had crossed deep and Deeney headed back across goal, Eustace headed wide when Trotta was better placed behind him.
Trotta’s debut came to an end on the hour when he made way for Garner, with the home side starting to ask a few attacking questions, although they had still yet to muster an attempt on target.
Deeney was the next to try his luck with a side-foot volley over the top from Kacaniklic’s pull back from the right before Puncheon, who had been booked moments before for kicking the ball away, fired high and wide at the other end.
But Southampton made certain of the points with the penalty spot 18 minutes from time, ironically after a great save by Kuszczak.
The keeper did very well to keep out an effort from Lee, who had opened up a clear-cut opportunity after capitalising on a lapse by Adrian Mariappa, but the ball then bounced up and as the Saints striker sought to get there before Kuszczak, he was clumsily bundled over by Dickinson.
There was never any doubt who was going to take the spot-kick and Lambert made no mistake, slamming the ball high to Kuszczak’s right to complete his hat-trick and make it 3-0.
After Adkins had made his second change, with Dean Hammond coming on for Chaplow, Dyche followed suit as Kacaniklic made way for Iwelumo.
The substitutions continued as Prince Buaben came on for Yeates before a large number of those left in the Rookery subjected Connolly to a predictably abusive reception when he replaced Lambert.
Watford might have pulled back a late consolation when Deeney’s cross from the right was met by the diving Garner, whose effort was the first on target for the hosts but it struck a defender, as the Rookery appealed for a penalty.
Southampton might have added a delightful fourth deep into injury time when Cork was played on the left side of the area and he tried to clip the ball into the far corner, but the shot dropped wide.
Watford: Kuszczak; Doyley, Nosworthy, Mariappa, Dickinson; Yeates (Buaben 83), Eustace, Hogg, Kacaniklic (Iwelumo 79); Deeney, Trotta (Garner 60). Not used: Loach; and Bennett.
Southampton: Davis; Butterfield, Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox; Chaplow (Hammond 77), Cork, Schneiderlin, Lallana (Puncheon 30); Lambert (Connolly 83), Lee. Not used: Sharp and Connolly.
Bookings: Hooiveld for a foul on Eustace (54); Puncheon for dissent (66).
Referee: Tony Bates.