Dwight Gayle's scintillating 35-minute hat-trick blew Walsall away as Crystal Palace breezed into the third round of the Capital One Cup with a 3-0 victory at Banks's Stadium.
Gayle staked his claim for a starting berth at Newcastle United on Saturday in fine fashion, hammering home a treble of clinical finishes as the Eagles turned in a professional performance to reach the last 32 of the competition for only the second time in the last nine seasons.
On a mild night in Birmingham, it took just a shade over six minutes for the visitors to display their Premier League quality and register an early breakthrough. Palace won a cheap free kick in the middle of the park and Adlene Guedioura showed superb awareness to take it quickly and send Gayle clean through on goal. The former Peterborough man took his time to take aim, before rifling a right-footed strike past the helpless Richard O'Donnell and into the far corner.
Central midfielder Billy Clifford stung the palms of Wayne Hennessey at the other end either side of Gayle's early strike as Walsall signalled their intent to cause an upset – but it was the Eagles' number 16 who struck his second of the game with 25 minutes on the clock.
After a swift Palace counter-attack saw Glenn Murray brought down 25 yards from goal, Gayle stepped up and drilled his free-kick beyond the wall and through a crowded penalty area into the bottom corner to double the visitors' money.
The lively Gayle was involved again three minutes later as Keith Millen's men looked to put the game to bed before half time. Jonny Williams retrieved a loose ball near the byline with a brave sliding challenge to find Gayle. He picked out his strike partner Murray who was composed enough to turn inside the penalty area and tee up Barry Bannan on the edge of D, but his first-time strike fizzed a yard or so over the crossbar.
Four minutes before the break though, the top flight side did make it 3-0 – and it was that man Gayle again who completed a stunning first-half hat-trick in fine style. Jerome Thomas found him on the left and after a step-over or two, Gayle worked himself a yard before arrowing an unstoppable left-footed strike past O'Donnell's despairing dive to put the game out of the Saddlers' reach.
Palace nearly found a fortuitous fourth right on the stroke of half-time when Thomas' teasing cross was headed inches past his own post by Paul Downing – and the League One side almost took full advantage five minutes into the second period. The ball was worked inside by Anthony Forde to Ashley Grimes, who opened his body on the edge of the box and whipped an arcing shot towards the top corner, only to see it cannon back off Hennessey's left-hand upright.
Having watched his strike partner bag a brilliant treble, Murray then came within inches of finding the net himself with a venomous strike of his own. Palace played some intricate football in the middle of the park involving Jerome Binnom-Williams, Bannan, Guedioura and Thomas, who eventually found Murray 30 yards out. He was afforded too much time on the ball before letting fly from distance, but his thunderbolt flew just wide.
The Eagles took their foot off the gas somewhat following that chance and Walsall were deprived of a consolation goal when Grimes' composed finish was ruled out for offside, before Tom Bradshaw saw his powerful effort beaten away by Hennessey.
With nine minutes to go, Dean Smith's battling side came even closer to getting on the scoresheet when substitute Mal Benning's corner was glanced just wide of the post by captain Adam Chambers and full-back Andy Taylor then hit a dipping free-kick just over the crossbar as the clock ticked down.
But despite the hosts' best efforts to make their mark on the tie late on, Palace saw out the game to register their first clean sheet of the season and round off a morale-boosting victory.
Walsall: O'Donnell, Kinsella, Holden, Downing, Taylor, Chambers, Clifford (Flanagan 61), Forde (Benning 75), Sawyers (Baxendale 61) Grimes, Bradshaw.
Unused subs: MacGillivray, O'Connor, Morris, Bakayoko.
Crystal Palace: Hennessey, Mariappa, McCarthy, Delaney (Hangeland 46), Binnom-Williams, Williams (Garvan 75), Guedioura, Bannan, Thomas, Murray, Gayle (Gray 61).
Unused subs: Kettings, Boateng, Puncheon, Kaikai.