Jason Puncheon’s superb brace and a goal from Joe Ledley gave Palace a resounding win over relegation rivals Cardiff City.
On Grand National day, it was the two midfield workhorses who led the Eagles to a memorable away victory, as they overcame a huge hurdle in the season’s final furlong to open up an eight-point lead over the struggling Bluebirds.
Puncheon’s second goal was a simply brilliant strike to round off a neat team move, which summed up a magnificent performance on the road by Tony Pulis’ side – who have put themselves within touching distance of securing Premier League survival.
It was the visitors who set the tone for the afternoon by having the first shot in anger three minutes in. Puncheon fooled the Bluebirds backline by playing a deep corner to the back post for Kagisho Dikgacoi, who was afforded too much time to bring the ball down on his chest, only to fire his half-volley high and wide when he should have done better.
It took barely 15 minutes for the home faithful to start getting restless as Palace continued to enjoy the better of the opening exchanges, with David Marshall the first keeper to dirty his gloves, although the save he made from Puncheon’s scuffed effort was a routine one.
Former Palace winger Wilfried Zaha slowly got into his stride though and began to look the most likely to create something for Cardiff, giving Joel Ward a stern test down the Eagles’ left, but it was a cross by Jordon Mutch from the same flank that almost led to the opening goal. Fraizer Campbell leapt well in an attempt to get his head to the ball, but the last touch came off Mile Jedinak and Julian Speroni sprang into action to turn it away low to his left.
But just after the half hour mark it was the Eagles who drew first blood. Puncheon laid the ball into Ledley on the right and made a great overlapping run to find himself space in the box. Ledley returned the ball neatly to him and Puncheon made a yard for himself, before drilling a shot past the wrong-footed Marshall to claim his fourth Premier League goal of the season and send the travelling red and blue army into ecstasy.
Pulis would have been delighted with his team’s first half showing, but they survived an early second half penalty appeal from the hosts as they went in search of the equaliser. Zaha’s deflected cross was headed clear by the immense Scott Dann as far as Mats Daehli on the edge of the area. The Norwegian shaped to hit a volley and went down under minimal contact from the back-tracking Dikgacoi, prompting referee Phil Dowd to wave away the optimistic appeals.
Palace continued to look threatening on the break though and after a superb spin and burst from the half-way line by the tireless Cameron Jerome, only a poor cross prevented the supporting trio of Puncheon, Ledley or Jedinak from doubling the Eagles’ advantage.
Zaha was substituted just after the hour mark to a chorus of boos from the home supporters as they voiced their obvious disapproval at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first roll of the dice, while Pulis’ first change saw the returning Marouane Chamakh enter the fray in place of Yannick Bolasie.
And the Moroccan had a huge hand in the goal that gave Palace some thoroughly deserved breathing space on 71 minutes. Jerome won a free kick 30 yards from goal which was swung into a brilliant area by Puncheon. Chamakh got on the end of it with a powerful downward header which Marshall did well to save with his feet, but Ledley was on hand to bundle the ball home from three yards out against his former employers.
That goal silenced the Cardiff City Stadium and that flatness was transplanted onto the pitch, with the Bluebirds only really threatening to get back into the game when substitute Craig Bellamy’s corner was headed wide by Campbell.
And two minutes from time, Puncheon put the icing on the Crystal Palace cake with a stunning goal. Adrian Mariappa picked the ball up on the right and fed the ball into Chamakh, who cleverly dummied the ball to allow it to run on for Puncheon. He cut inside onto his left foot and curled a beautifully shaped shot into the top corner beyond the helpless Marshall.
Puncheon tricked his way into the box in the final minute only to be denied a hat-trick by Marshall, but in the end three goals were more than enough for Palace to put daylight between themselves and the Premier League trap door with just six games of the campaign to go.
Crystal Palace: Speroni, Mariappa, Dann, Delaney, Ward, Dikgacoi, Jedinak, Puncheon, Ledley (Parr 78), Bolasie (Chamakh 66), Jerome (Murray 82).
Subs not used: Hennessey, Gabbidon, Ince, Gayle.
Cardiff City: Marshall, Theophile-Catherine, Caulker, Turner, Taylor, Medel, Mutch, Daehli (Bellamy 72), Zaha (Noone 62), Campbell, Jones (Cowie 78).
Subs not used: Lewis, Eikrem, McNaughton, Cala.