It's eight years to the day since Rickie Lambert hit a beauty of a free-kick for Southampton against Crystal Palace. But does it make the master marksman's top five set-piece strikes?
“That is why Southampton paid a million pounds for Rickie Lambert,” cries the commentator, as this 30-yarder curls just inside the post to put Saints 3-0 up against Tranmere in League One. It’s easy to forget that some baulked at the price tag for a third-tier marksman, but this was a sign of things to come, as the new number seven went on to become one of the club’s best ever value-for-money signings. Struck from a position just left of centre, Lambert had the option of both corners to choose from, which left rookie goalkeeper Luke Daniels in two minds. The super-confident striker opted to shoot to Daniels’s left, leaving the stopper clutching at thin air as the ball sailed into the top corner.
Saints’ first game of the new decade was ushered in with a spectacular strike from the team’s new talisman against non-league Luton in the FA Cup third round. Not only was this one a long way out, it was also right of centre – supposedly the trickier side for a right-footed player. But Lambert had no such trouble against veteran goalkeeper Kevin Pilkington, once the understudy to Peter Schmeichel at Manchester United. Starting his shot outside the keeper’s left post, Lambert whipped it back inside the near upright and high into the net to break the deadlock. It would prove the only goal of the game, and enough to secure Saints’ place in the fourth round.
This was one of many pivotal games in Saints’ quest for automatic promotion from League One. After an indifferent start to the club’s second season back in the third tier, the team had picked up some serious momentum under new manager Nigel Adkins. By the time Adkins led his side to south coast neighbours Bournemouth in March, Saints were in the play-off places with their sights set on chasing down the second-placed Cherries. Falling behind to an early opener, Saints fought back to lead through goals from Lee Barnard and Dean Hammond, before Lambert made the game safe with this 88th-minute free-kick. Standing over the ball towards the right corner of the penalty area, he masterfully beat the wall and goalkeeper Shwan Jalal at his near post.
The last of his free-kicks in the red and white stripes could not have been better placed, as Asmir Begovic was beaten all ends up from an improbable angle. Proving his versatility with a dead ball around the penalty area, this time Lambert found himself on the left side of the box, right on the line. There was only one place he could put it, and Begovic knew that, leaving only the smallest gap to his left-hand side. A crowded six-yard line would not have helped the Bosnian’s cause, knowing there was a chance of the shot being redirected en route to goal, but there was no stopping Lambert’s combination of power, accuracy and curl, as the ball kissed the far post en route to the back of the net.
Having found the net from a similar spot with a free-kick against boyhood club Liverpool two weeks before, Lambert’s confidence was up when Saints were awarded another set-piece against Chelsea. Whilst against Liverpool he had the benefit of a generous deflection, he needed no such luck to beat Petr Cech at St Mary’s. Fully 30 yards from goal, from a central position, Lambert eyed up the gap to the keeper’s right and duly found it, curling the ball away from his dive and into the corner of the net. It proved to be the winning goal, as Saints ran out 2-1 victors over the Champions League holders to pull further clear of the relegation places in the club’s first year back in the top flight following a seven-year absence.