Crystal Palace's patient resurgence continued last night, leaving the club one step from Wembley and the Carling Cup final. They will take a slender lead to Cardiff for the second leg of their semi-final the week after next, after edging a tight, awkward contest at Selhurst Park.
This was not Palace's best performance of the season. Cardiff moved the ball with more confidence and guile, and the hosts were forced into desperate penalty-area defending for much of the evening.
Cardiff, though, failed to defend a free-kick when it mattered, and two minutes before the break Anthony Gardner's battering ram of a header made the difference.
The Palace manager, Dougie Freedman, was thrilled with his players' commitment under difficult circumstances: they had been afflicted by an illness crisis, and only their resolve allowed him to field as strong a team as he did.
"We had to patch up a couple of players and get them out there, Mile Jedinak and Paddy McCarthy nearly didn't make it," Freedman revealed afterwards. "I asked them to show real character, and they did. I looked them in the eye at 5pm and asked them if they were prepared to put their bodies on the line for the club, and they said 'yes'."
The sight of the players investing so much to win the game was an obvious pleasure for Freedman: delicacy was for another night. "This was all about character. It wasn' t pretty, there wasn't much passing and moving, but it was about determination and character to keep that clean sheet. We defended very, very well."
Palace certainly did defend well, although not well enough to keep the ball out of their net. Early in the second half Kenny Miller headed in Peter Whittingham's corner, with Joe Mason in the proximity of Palace keeper Julian Speroni. Referee Mike Dean, though, detected a foul.
Malky Mackay, the Cardiff manager was less than impressed. "The referee has made a howler," he said. "Nobody's touched the goalkeeper. Nobody's anywhere near him. Nobody can believe it after we've stuck it into the net. No one, to a man, can believe the decision, but it's happened." Dean, according to Mackay, was compensating for a questionable award of the initial corner kick.
With both teams making 10 changes from their weekend FA Cup defeats,they started the tie with an appropriately forward tempo. Away goals may only count after 180 minutes in the Carling Cup, but Cardiff were no less keen to win the tie on the night. They started with an immediate burst of pressure, Mackay compared it to a "house on fire": four attacking throw-ins, a corner, and a point well made.
Whittingham's deflected free-kick nearly wrong-footed Speroni, and a Whittingham corner was narrowly headed over by Ben Turner. Mason was drifting into useful spaces, while in Miller they had the game's most accomplished forward, able to conjure himself shooting positions.
It was a failure of the basics, though, that gifted the lead to Palace. Darren Ambrose slung in a free-kick from close to the half-way line. Cardiff keeper Tom Heaton came to meet the ball but was beaten to it by Jedinak. Gardner, bounding in at the far post, made unstoppable, unambiguous contact. Palace went in ahead.
With the lead, the home side were content to defend deep and hit Cardiff on the break. Wilfried Zaha, switched to the left, was twisting and dipping past defenders, and continued to win free-kicks from a frustrated Cardiff.
The visitors had the ball, though, and continued to create chances. Long after Miller's disallowed goal Joe Ralls, Aron Gunnarsson and Andrew Taylor all shot off target. Miller attempted a late overhead-kick but only managed to send the ball away from goal.
Cardiff left London needing a win in Wales to return. Palace, two years ago in administration, are 90 minutes from Wembley.
Man of the match Zaha.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee M Dean (Wirral).
Second leg Tuesday 24 January, 7.45pm