Rickie Lambert scored his second hat-trick of the season yesterday to keep Southampton five points clear at the top of the Championship. A powerful far-post header and two penalties brought his total to 14 goals, 12 in the League – four better than any other player in the division, and good going for a 29-year-old playing at this level for the first time in his career.
"He's looking fit, sharp and hungry and he's scoring good goals," Nigel Adkins, the Southampton manager said.
The victory was Southampton's 20th in succession at home. Not since Manchester United won an FA Cup fourth-round tie here on 29 January have Southampton failed to win in front of their own fans, and they have scored in every match this season.
Brighton, who beat Southampton to last season's League One title, had hopes of repeating last season's draw in the fixture. But their cause was not helped by indiscipline on the part of Mauricio Taricco, their defender and assistant manager, whose red card for dissent after the award of the first of Lambert's penalties left Brighton with 10 men for most of the second half.
While Gustavo Poyet, the Brighton manager, would not excuse his assistant's actions without reading the referee's report, he was seething about the penalty, which he described as "embarrassing – it was half a yard, a yard, outside the box. It was game over. I thought at 1-0 there would be a chance sooner or later, but they are the best team in the League."
Such a comfortable victory for Southampton had seemed highly improbable after a tight and almost chanceless first half as Brighton kept possession and none of Southampton's usual barrage of crosses produced a chance to force a save from Steve Harper.
Sooner or later, though, one had to find a target, and it happened two minutes into the second half. Right-back Frazer Richardson cut inside and crossed left-footed for Lambert, who easily outjumped Taricco and Noone to head in.
"We wanted the full-backs to get forward and Rickie to pull off [the central defenders]; that was a goal we had worked on," Adkins said.
After 57 minutes Southampton were 2-0 and a man up. Jose Fonte's forward run was ended by Lewis Dunk's trip and Lambert converted the penalty, but not before Taricco had manged to argue himself into a dismissal. The Argentinian had also been sent off for dissent on his debut for Brighton last season.
Lambert completed his hat-trick in the 70th minute with his 14th goal of the campaign, another penalty, after the referee, Peter Walton, judged that he had been fouled by Inigo Calderon.
Southampton (4-4-2): Davis; Richardson, Fonte, Hooiveld, Fox; Chaplow, Cork, Hammond (Schneiderlin, 61), Lallana (De Ridder, 77); Guly Do Prado (Barnard, 82), Lambert.
Brighton (4-2-1-3): Harper; Taricco, Greer, Dunk, Painter; Bridcutt, Navarro (Sparrow, 66); Harley (Calderon, 58); Noone, Paynter (Barnes, 66), Mackail-Smith.
Referee Peter Walton.
Man of the match Lambert (Southampton).
Match rating 5/10.