Did we just witness Jay Rodriguez's breakout performance at the Premier League level?
After scoring six league play goals during his EPL debut, the English striker had already exceeded that mark headed into Southampton's match against Cardiff City on Thursday. But Rodriguez continued to pad that total with easily his best game as a Saint, scoring two goals and adding an assist in his team's 3-0 romp over Cardiff City.
Rodriguez's tremendous first half staked Southampton out to an insurmountable three-goal first-half lead against the Bluebirds, turning the game into a blowout that few saw coming.
The 24-year-old opened the scoring after midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin gave a Adam Lallana a beautiful ball to create a two-on-none situation. With a few Bluebird defenders in pursuit, Lallana's cross to a wide-open Rodriguez was slightly off, which required a diving effort to poke the ball home:
GOAL Cardiff 0-1 Southampton (15 mins). Jay Rodriguez slides in to put Saints ahead, finishing from Adam Lallana's cross #CARSOU— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
Just five minutes later, Rodriguez struck again when a nice run into the box left him with goal-side position against his defender. At point-blank range, he was able to finish a cross from Rickie Lambert:
GOAL Cardiff 0-2 Southampton (20 mins). Jay Rodriguez gets his second, smartly finishing from Rickie Lambert's pass #CARSOU— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
Rodriguez rounded out his exemplary half by returning the favor to Lambert, setting up his fellow striker for the Saints' third goal of the half. Lambert was able to chest the ball down and fire it past Cardiff keeper David Marshall:
ASSIST Jay Rodriguez set up Rickie Lambert for Saints' third goal, so it's two goals and an assist for him. Cardiff 0-3 Southampton #CARSOU— Premier League (@premierleague) December 26, 2013
Rodriguez's breakout comes at a critical time for the Saints, who had gone winless in their past six matches. Though Southampton sat in ninth in the league, comfortably in the top half, they were also losing ground on the top eight teams, which have begun to separate themselves. A few more weeks in the swoon would have sent the Saints near the bottom of the league, though likely not to the relegation zone. In fact, in previewing the match, STATS editor Chris Altruda noted Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino exhibited an unseasonably Grinch-like demeanor, per Yahoo! Sports:
Southampton (6-6-5) are out to stop the rot after their winless spell reached six matches (0-2-4) with a 3-2 home loss to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. Adam Lallana had a goal and assisted on Rickie Lambert's marker in the 59th minute to forge a 2-2 tie, but the Saints conceded the match-winner to Emmanuel Adebayor five minutes later and left manager Mauricio Pochettino lamenting that Christmas had come early on the south coast.
"I think - in the second half in particular - we got dressed up as Santa Claus and gifted them many chances," the Argentine said. "We made a lot of mistakes and in the Premier League if you make mistakes like that then you will get punished."
But thanks to fine form from their young striker, the Saints are back in the win column. With the five teams behind them all losing, today's rejuvenating victory was a crucial step forward in separating Southampton from their closest peers.