If Ricky Lambert, one of those England contenders who cannot yet be sure of his summer plans, was disappointed not to start this game with Roy Hodgson in attendance, he grasped the opportunity as a substitute with two hands and both feet.
The Merseysider scored a well-taken goal within 64 seconds of coming on and then set up another of Southampton’s World Cup contenders, Jay Rodriguez, for a 3-0 lead before Norwich, outplayed for 80 minutes, staged an unlikely comeback. Gifted two goals by sloppy defending, they could not take further advantage and in added time the teenager Sam Gallagher scored on the break to leave them in dire trouble.
Their manager, Chris Hughton, had been taunted by his own supporters with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” when taking off Gary Hooper as part of a triple substitution, but it turned out that he did know. His position, long-term if not short-, nevertheless remains as precarious as that of his team, although he denied a website report that he will leave in the summer come what may.
Four points above the relegation places and without an away point since New Year’s Day, Norwich now face four fellow strugglers in games that could determine their fate, as the final four after that are against Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Until that late rally, which owed much to opposition mistakes, they looked as feeble as usual on their travels. Only occasional heroics at Carrow Road have kept them afloat thus far and a lack of goals anywhere is undermining them.
“We showed the character and spirit to get two goals back but a very good Southampton side were better than us today,” said Hughton with typical honesty. “There’s eight games to go to get enough points and I think we’re capable of that.”
Southampton, in contrast, are sitting pretty in eighth place, and staying there would equal their best Premier League finish, achieved as long ago as 2003. There is a new sense of stability too after the Canadian Ralph Krueger was appointed as chairman last week, two months after Nicola Cortese’s departure; he has promised there is no question of the club being sold. The manager, Mauricio Pochettino, said: “It’s a great lesson we have to learn – the game isn’t finished until the final whistle.” His young braves had begun it well enough, scoring a team goal worthy of Arsenal in the fifth minute. The move flowed from Steven Davis to Rodriguez for a lay-off to Gaston Ramirez and then in to Morgan Schneiderlin, whose forward run was matched by the deftness of his finish.
Sloppiness typified by the goalkeeper Artur Boruc’s wayward kicking then set in and a more confident team than Norwich could have exploited it. Pochettino waited only 10 minutes into the second half before replacing Adam Lallana with Lambert, who needed barely a minute to veer inside Joseph Yobo and score. He unselfishly laid on the third goal for Rodriguez, who then hit the bar, and a number of disenchanted Norwich supporters had left before errors by Jose Fonte and Guly do Prado led to goals by Johan Elmander, one of Hughton’s substitutes, and Robert Snodgrass.
In a prolonged spell of added time Norwich charged forward but were caught out by young Gallagher’s first League goal after a good break led by Davis. Hodgson had left by then but is certain to look again at Southampton’s crop of Englishmen before the end of the season.
If there is to be a place on the plane to Brazil for an old-fashioned British centre-forward, Lambert must be the current favourite ahead of Andy Caroll. Rodriguez, although not yet international class, was too good for Norwich. But these days he is far from alone in that.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Boruc; Clyne, Fonte, Lovren, Shaw; Ward-Prowse, Schneiderlin; Davis , Ramirez (Guly,61), Lallana (Lambert, 55); Rodriguez (Gallagher, 89).
Norwich (4-1-4-1): Ruddy; Whittaker, Bennett, Yobo, Olsson; Tettey; Snodgrass, Johnson (Van Wolfswinkel,65), Howson, Pilkington (Redmond, 65); Hooper (Elmander, 65).
Referee: Kevin Friend
Man of the match: Rodriguez (Southampton)
Match rating: 7/10