MK Dons underlined their recent improvement under boss Paul Ince with a powerful display to blow away hapless Hartlepool.
After weeks of consistent improvement, Ince's men delivered the kind of devastating performance they have threatened to unleash since their upturn in form began last month. Uncompromising in defence, creative in midfield and lethal in attack, they recorded the Club's biggest ever away win against a 'Pools side that hopelessly failed to contain them.
With his team in control of proceedings and the points never in doubt, Ince was also able to introduce debutants Andros Townsend and Mark Randall in the second half and they did much to justify their big reputations.
But the two Premier League young guns, on loan from Spurs and Arsenal respectively, will have learned quickly that places in this Dons side will not come cheaply. In fact, those in possession of the spots Townsend and Randall covet rose to the challenge superbly - Peter Leven and Jason Puncheon weighing in with a goal apiece to cap excellent afternoons, while Luke Chadwick and Stephen Gleeson also played significant roles in a dominant display.
Despite starting in an unfamiliar role on the right of a five-man midfield, it was Hartlepool old boy Jermaine Easter who opened the floodgates just five minutes in, silencing the boos of the home supporters. Puncheon's corner saw 'Pools defender Ben Clark escape after an obvious shirt pull on Aaron Wilbraham in the box, but Gleeson retrieved possession before delivering from the right. Skipper Dean Lewington headed down intelligently for the spinning Easter, whose outstretched leg squeezed the ball under Scott Flinders and sent it crawling over the line.
Easter celebrates his goal with David McCracken. A 16th goal of the season for the Dons' leading scorer and, with his team punching gaping holes in the armour of their sluggish hosts, Easter would have fancied filling his boots. The lead was doubled on 22 minutes as neat work between Puncheon and Leven down the right saw the former drive the latest in a string of stunning crossfield balls to Lewington on the left. Chadwick was subsequently let off his leash, tearing past Antony Sweeney before his dangerous low cross was turned into his own net by Gary Liddle.
Chadwick himself should have made it three moments later when he hit the post from a tight angle after a wretched mix-up between Liddle and Flinders. It was a prime example of the vulnerability of a 'Pools defence lacking the leadership of skipper Sam Collins.
The avoidance of complacency at the forefront of their minds, the Dons continued to defend with solidity after the break - the returning David McCracken and Frenchman Mathias Doumbe forming an impregnable wall Hartlepool never looked likely to get round. And on 54 minutes they ended the contest with a goal right out of the top drawer. Wilbraham, at his selfless best in the lone-striker role, bullied Liddle out of possession before finding the quick feet of Gleeson, who side-stepped two defenders before measuring a pass for the arriving Chadwick to his left.
Goal in sight and personal glory awaiting, Chadwick brilliantly picked out Leven, who gleefully rifled into the net. Points well and truly sealed, Ince threw his new boys into the mix, but a Dons side without a clean sheet in 12 understandably began to consolidate. But consolidation doesn't look to be in Townsend's nature and his rapier-like bursts into Hartlepool territory will have had Dons fans intrigued as to the impact he could have between now and the end of the season.
Randall too was effective, stylish in possession as you would expect from an Arsenal youngster, but gritty in the tackle and responsible in defence as he showed on several occasions. The two typically combined to set up fellow substitute Sam Baldock with 13 minutes to go - Townsend sending the Dons striker clear to celebrate his new contract with a ninth goal of the season.
And when Wilbraham, tireless in mind as well as body, cushioned another Townsend pass into the path of the lurking Puncheon, Hartlepool were helpless to deny the on-loan Plymouth magician, who stepped inside and crashed home mercilessly from the edge of the box. With a huge Johnstone's Paint Trophy tie against Southampton on the horizon, it was a brilliantly-timed statement from Ince's team. In this form, the Saints will be hard pushed to deny them a second Wembley appearance in three seasons.
Hartlepool United (4-4-2): Flinders; Sweeney, Clark, Liddle, Austin; Jones (Larkin 63), Gamble, Humphreys (c), Monkhouse; Bjornssnn (Behan 40), Boyd.
Subs not used: Cook, McSweeney, Haslam, Fredrikssen, Cherel.
Booked: Liddle, Monkhouse, Austin
MK Dons (4-5-1): Gueret; Woodards, Doumbe, McCracken, Lewington (c); Easter (Baldock 75), Puncheon, Gleeson, Leven (Randall 70), Chadwick (Townsend 60); Wilbraham.
Subs not used: Stirling, Howell, Darren Powell, Morgan.
Goals: Easter 5, Liddle (og) 22, Leven 54, Baldock 77, Puncheon 82.
Booked: Puncheon, Easter
Attendance: 3,211 (123 away)
Referee: Chris Sarginson (Staffordshire)