THREE goals in a 19-minute second half spell – two of them from Liverpool-born Rickie Lambert – shattered Rovers’ resilience and ended the visitors’ five-match unbeaten run.
Lambert’s set-piece brace, which took his overall goal tally for the season to 19, came on the back of an earlier strike by Dan Harding and broke Tranmere, whose method, workrate and organisation had led to Southampton becoming a fraught, frustrated and ragged outfit at half-time.
But once Rovers’ defences had been breached six minutes after the break, there was an air of inevitability about the result and Tranmere never recovered.
If there was any consolation for Tranmere, all three Southampton strikes were of the highest quality, albeit one of them did come from the penalty spot.
Southampton manager Alan Pardew, whose side made it five wins in a row in all competitions and have been beaten just once in 15 games, admitted Rovers’ had made it tough for his in-form side.
“It was a tough test. Tranmere made it very difficult for us and tried to frustrate us and suck us into a game we didn’t want to play,” he explained.
“You have to overcome that at any level. We would like to have been better, but Tranmere made that very difficult.
“The first goal was very important – it was a fantastic hit from Dan (Harding) – and it obviously changed the face of the game.”
With no injury worries to contend with, caretaker manager Les Parry started with the line-up that reeled off back-to-back wins over Brentford and Aldershot Town (in the FA Cup) in the past week.
The confidence that Rovers have derived from their recent unbeaten run was evident as they were the better side in a scrappy, goalless first half and certainly the more creative going forward.
With Zoumana Bakayogo having wide dangerman Michail Antonio in his pocket (for much of the game, in fact) and Ian Goodison and Marlon Broomes secure in the centre, Tranmere were able to break forward.
Ian Thomas-Moore volleyed over early on and John Welsh sent three efforts wide of goal, while the best Southampton could offer was a low 20-yard drive from Lambert, which Luke Daniels dived to beat away.
But chances were at a premium as a series of stoppages, mainly for niggly challenges, culminated in bookings for Ian Goodison and an increasingly frustrated Lambert – and brought little cheer for a near 20,000-strong crowd.
The first half was uneasy on the eye and largely forgettable: apart from Lambert’s fierce drive, neither side fashioned a shot on target in the 45 minutes.
Six minutes into the second half, Southampton got behind the Tranmere defence for the first time – and the balance of the game changed.
A largely subdued David Connolly switched a neat Southampton build up from right to left and, with Shaleum Logan pulled out of position, the unmarked Harding arrowed a stunning left-foot drive into the far corner.
Within ten minutes Southampton had doubled their lead from the penalty spot – Marlon Broomes collecting a yellow card by needlessly jumping, arms outstretched, to almost catch a third successive corner from Lloyd!
It gave Lambert the opportunity to drill his fifth penalty of the season into Daniels’ right-hand corner.
To add to Rovers’ woe, it meant a fifth booking of the season for the influential Tranmere central defender, who is now suspended and will miss Saturday’s match with Bristol Rovers at Prenton Park.
With 20 minutes remaining, Parry made a double substitution, sending on Michael Ricketts and Chris Shuker for Gornell and Edds.
It had little impact as, soon after, Southampton moved into an unassailable 3-0 lead.
Though Rovers’ will consider themselves unlucky to have been penalised – a free kick being awarded against Craig Curran some 30 yards out.
Lambert, who played his junior soccer for Kirby Boys in his fledgling years on Merseyside, cashed in with a stunning strike, which flew over the defensive wall and arrowed past Daniels into his top left corner.
The goal was out of keeping with what had gone on earlier, but climaxed 19 horror minutes for Parry and his aides.
There was no way back for Tranmere, who had literally been blown away. If there was any consolation, all six clubs at the League One basement lost over the weekend …
It probably was Tranmere’s only consolation.
SOUTHAMPTON: Bialkowski, James, Perry, Jaidi, Harding, Hammond, Schneiderlin (Wotton 65), Lallana, Antonio, Lambert (Mellis 84), Connolly, (Papa Waigo 84). Subs not used: Forecast, Thomas, Mills, Trotman. Bookings: Lambert, Schneiderlin.
TRANMERE: Daniels, Logan, Broomes, Goodison, Bakayogo, Welsh (McLaren 77), Taylor, Edds (Shuker 69), Thomas-Moore, Gornell (Ricketts 69), Curran. Subs not used: Collister, Barnett, Cresswell, Fraughan. Bookings: Broomes, Curran, Goodison. Referee: Danny McDermid.