WHEN Saints are at their very best there are few – if any – teams in League One that can live with them.
On Saturday, Alan Pardew’s side were firing on all cylinders and it resulted in Walsall being well and truly blown away.
Saints were vibrant, incisive, confident and ruthless.
It was a performance full of power, pace and quality.
The Saddlers have enjoyed a good season and are a solid League One side, but the gulf in class between them and a Saints team in full flight is enormous.
Probably only Leeds and Norwich could stand toe-to-toe with Saints in that kind of form.
And, last weekend, the Canaries showed that it might even be too much for them.
It was no surprise that Saturday’s performance coincided with Pardew fielding what is arguably his strongest side.
It was undoubtedly the most complete team he has been able to put out since taking over as manager.
Morgan Schneiderlin, who missed the disappointing 0-0 draw at Wycombe with a knee injury, returned to the team.
Like at Norwich, his presence in the centre of midfield, was a huge boost.
Saints had such a balanced feel about them all over the pitch.
Strong in defence, with two full backs prepared to venture forward and offer support in attack.
And a mouthwatering attacking partnership of Rickie Lambert and Lee Barnard that is becoming more and more dangerous.
It is such a boost to a manager to be able to field his best eleven.
With all the necessary chopping and changing due to the fantastic progress in the cup competitions, that has been a luxury rarely afforded to Pardew.
But with only the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final left, he can finally start to field a more settled side.
Saturday’s game, as well as the visit to Norwich, was probably the first time Pardew has looked at his side and felt it is finally at a level where it can compete week in and week out with the top two.
Saints looked like a team capable of bossing League One.
Given the state the club started the season in, that is a fairly rapid change. But Saints’ major problem during the campaign has been consistency.
With the energy-sapping cup distractions, coupled with trying to build and mould a team while the season goes along, it is no shock that has been an issue.
Last Tuesday’s result probably caused more frustration than any other game where Saints have dropped points this season, because people were expecting them to kick on after Norwich.
But on a horrible pitch and without the calming influence of someone like Schneiderlin, Saints just stuttered a bit.
Yet they did what all good teams must after a night like that – they responded emphatically.
It was one of the best all-round performances seen at St Mary’s in the past few seasons.
Strangely, though, it started in the worst possible fashion for Pardew’s men.
After Radhi Jaidi was penalised for a foul 25 yards from goal, Walsall left back Matt Richards curled the resulting free-kick brilliantly into the top corner.
But from then on it was one-way traffic.
Rene Gilmartin had to save well from Lambert’s diving header, before doing well to keep out Lee Barnard.
But Walsall were looking ropy and it was only a matter of time until Saints equalised.
The breakthrough came in the eighth minute, as Lambert nodded a long ball down for Puncheon.
He took a touch and slammed a low, left foot drive across Gilmartin and in off the far post.
Lambert nearly gave Saints the lead with an audacious lob that went just wide shortly after.
Barnard then had a goal disallowed for offside in the 20th minute, as Saints pushed for the lead.
After Puncheon and Barnard went close soon after, the second arrived on 33 minutes.
Puncheon’s ball in from the right was nodded back across goal by Lambert and Barnard was on hand to slam home.
It was 3-1 on 37 minutes, as the marauding Jon Otsemobor found Barnard in the box.
The striker pulled the ball down and rifled a shot past Gilmartin.
Saints were running riot and Lallana, Hammond and Barnard all went close again before the break.
The second half started at a slower pace, as Saints confidently stroked the ball around and made Walsall do most of the chasing.
Hammond nearly added a fourth as Lambert found him in space in the area.
But Gilmartin got enough on his shot from a tight angle to allow Richards to get back and clear off the line.
However, it was only a twominute reprieve, as Lambert got his 25th of the season.
The striker brilliantly brought down Hammond’s clipped ball towards him at the back post, then powered it past Gilmartin for 4-1.
Barnard received a standing ovation on 64 minutes, when substituted for Papa Waigo.
Davis, a bystander for most of the game, then had to keep out a long-range effort from Alex Nicholls.
Lallana should have added the fifth on 71 minutes, but blazed over after being found by Waigo’s cutback.
Pardew made his final changes by swapping Jaidi and Lambert for Wayne Thomas and Michail Antonio. The icing on the cake was added in the 90th minute, as Waigo’s brilliant ball across the face of the six-yard box was met by Lallana for a well-deserved goal to round off a thumping win.