IF proof was needed Saints are building a squad that can compete in the Championship then this win provided it.

Ipswich may be a division above Saints, but Alan Pardew’s men stood toe-totoe with them at St Mary’s.

Although they didn’t have it all their own way, they deservedly booked a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup.

It was a performance that should further enhance the team’s belief in itself.

After an even first h a l f , w h i c h S a i n t s edged on the scoreb o a r d thanks to a moment of magic from Wayne Thomas, the hosts controlled things after the break.

Bar a panicky few minutes of stoppage time, it was Saints who looked like the Championship side in the second half.

The display was all the more impressive given that Pardew was without a few key players, such as Dean Hammond, Morgan Schneiderlin, Dan Harding and Jose Fonte.

But they didn’t miss a beat, thanks to strong displays from the likes of Paul Wotton and Joseph Mills in place of some of those.

That is encouraging, not only because it highlights the improvement in the depth of Pardew’s squad, but that there is a good group of players that could handle the step up a division – whenever that time may come.

Saints certainly seem to have got a bit of their swagger back.

After a bit of an indifferent run of form, they snapped out of that with a dominant display at MK Dons, in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, last Wednesday.

Saturday’s performance was equally impressive.

H o p e f u l ly, Saints can now carry that form back into the league, where they have won just one of their last four matches.

That could well be the big positive of this continued cup run.

The downside, though, which can’t be ignored sadly, is that it means yet another game Saints must cram into their packed fixture list.

There was a school of thought that Saints’ play-off ambitions might have been best served by their FA Cup adventure coming to an end at the weekend.

Now, there is no such thing as a bad win or a good loss, but it is certainly a theory that could turn out to have some merit when we eventually look back on the season.

Next month’s Hartlepool match must now be moved to a midweek slot, with Saints already facing a mountain of Tuesday night games – including one a t Brentford tomorrow.

T h e headache will worsen even more if Saints have to face a replay in the next round, or advance further in the competition.

Progressing to the Johnstone’s Paint final would also have a knockon effect, with another game at Oldham being rescheduled.

Whatever the case, the strength and depth of the squad will be severely tested in the coming months.

But, as people left St Mary’s on Saturday, there was just that little sense of momentum beginning to build again.

With some luck, that may allow Saints to overcome the problems this congested period will undoubtedly give them.

They had to endure a bright start from Ipswich.

Kelvin Davis kept out Grant Leadbitter’s free-kick with his legs in the second minute, before racing from his goal soon after to put in a strong sliding tackle on the same player after he was nearly put through.

Lee Barnard had a great chance to mark his debut with a goal in the 11th minute.

A neat move from Saints ended up with the ball coming to him in space inside the box, but he couldn’t get enough on his effort to seriously trouble keeper Arran Lee-Barrett.

Adam Lallana drove a left foot effort towards goal from 20 yards, but Lee-Barrett got down well to save.

Davis had to make stops from Damien Delaney and Jon Walters, before the deadlock was spectacularly broken in the 31st minute.

The ball came to Thomas 25 yards out and the right-back hit an absolute missile across goal and into the top corner.

Ipswich responded well and put some pressure on Saints, with Chris Perry having to make an excellent block to deny Leadbitter.

But the hosts were able to keep their lead intact at the break.

Ipswich thought they had an equaliser four minutes after the restart.

However, although Carlos Edwards’ long throw found its way into the net, referee Andy Hall ruled it out because no one had got a touch.

From that point, Saints really stamped their authority.

Thomas nearly added a second, after a corner fell to him at the far post, but his shot from close range was scrambled behind.

Midway through the half, Radhi Jaidi almost doubled the lead.

Lallana’s cross from the right took a slight deflection and looped up to the far post, where the big defender came roaring in.

But he couldn’t get over the ball and his header cleared the bar.

The second goal did come, however, in the 74th minute.

Rickie Lambert showed great strength to win a long ball forward, before being fouled on the edge of the box by Gareth McAuley.

Saints’ top scorer drove the resulting free-kick low and through a number of bodies.

Lee-Barrett managed to keep the shot out, but it fell kindly to Michail Antonio, who had been brought off the bench just minutes before, to slot home the rebound.

Lambert nearly produced a stunner, firing a 35-yard volley over the Ipswich keeper, who was off his line, but the ball went just over.

Saints looked comfortable, but the nerves started jangling when a clever move from Ipswich put sub Pablo Counago through to make it 2-1 as the game entered stoppage time.

Ipswich piled bodies forward in a bid to force a replay, but Saints remained resolute.