Cardiff City blew a golden opportunity yesterday to put their noses in front of automatic promotion rivals Norwich City ahead of their match at Portsmouth last night as Middlesbrough romped to a stunning victory in the Welsh capital.
The hosts, aiming to reach the top division of English football for the first time since 1962, were left shell-shocked following 18 crazy first-half minutes after well-worked goals from Leroy Lita, Barry Robson and Richard Smallwood.
Cardiff came into this all-important contest having won five of their last six matches. But they saw their hopes of overhauling Norwich's one-point advantage go up in smoke after just 21 minutes. The shocking defeat will evoke memories for Cardiff of last season's play-off final loss to Blackpool while the result gives Boro renewed optimism for next season's prospects.
Boro were heavily tipped to be leading the chase for automatic promotion back in pre-season, but a dismal start to the campaign saw Gordon Strachan fired by the end of October and Tony Mowbray installed.
The former West Bromwich Albion coach, who got the club promoted in 2008, has slowly stamped his authority at the Riverside with just one defeat in their previous 10 encounters.
But, despite the improvement in performance and results, the Teessiders could not have dreamt of making such a fast start against a side vying for a top-two finish .
Cardiff's defensive woes started in the third minute when Lita headed home a right-wing cross from full-back Tony McMahon. Then, after Robson fizzed a 25-yard shot straight at goalkeeper Tom Heaton, Boro doubled their advantage.
Lita caused havoc once again down the right and Robson nipped in ahead of Kevin McNaughton, who was named as Cardiff's Player of the Year last Friday night, to stab the ball home.
"Premier League, you're having a laugh", taunted the 500 travelling Boro supporters.
And the visitors' joy soon turned into ecstasy when Smallwood drilled Marvin Emnes' centre home from near the penalty spot as Boro became only the second side in 47 league fixtures – after Leicester City in last season's play-off semi-finals – to score three times here.
Jay Bothroyd saw his shot deflected wide of the post by Boro centre-back Rhys Williams but the lacklustre hosts offered little in response to the stunning opening period.
Cardiff manager Dave Jones introduced Jason Koumas for defender Jlloyd Samuel to provide some much-needed inspiration but it failed to materialise before the interval as his side walked off to a chorus of boos.
Jones's half-time team talk would have made interesting listening but, within a minute, Cardiff almost gave the majority of the 25,183 crowd a glimmer of hope.
Kevin McNaughton stole a march on the Boro defence at the back post from Bothroyd's flick-on after neat work by Pete Whittingham down the right, but his attempted finish from a yard sailed wide. Then, in the 52nd minute, the off-colour Bothroyd snatched wildly at Craig Bellamy's pullback.
Chances were at a premium with Boro content to wind down the clock and settle for their well-deserved three-goal lead. Cardiff, to their credit, kept pressing for a goal but winger Chris Burke fired wide and Seyi Olofinjana summed up their tame efforts with a wayward header as time ran out.
Cardiff had planned to go on a lap of honour in what they had hoped would be the final home match of the season but two-thirds of the crowd was already long gone by the final whistle.
Cardiff City (4-4-2): Heaton; Quinn (Chopra, 72), McNaughton, Keinan, Samuel (Koumas, 31); Burke, Olofinjana, McPhail (Blake, h-t), Whittingham; Bellamy, Bothroyd. Substitutes not used Bywater (gk), Rae, Hudson, Parkin.
Middlesbrough (5-3-2): Steele; Hoyte, McMahon, McManus, Williams, Taylor; Smallwood, Robson (Flood, 86), Thomson; Lita, Emnes (Franks 62). Substitutes not used Smith (gk), Haas, Kink, Halliday, Grounds
Referee G Scott (Oxfordshire).Reuse content