Cardiff manager Dave Jones believes top scorer Peter Whittingham will be playing in the Premier League next season come what may. He has one more reason to believe it will be with his team after the winger's 77th-minute free-kick shaded the first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final yesterday.
Jones admits that the former Aston Villa player, for whom he paid only £350,000 three years ago, is being watched by a substantial number of top-flight clubs, with West Ham United said to be especially interested.
The swinging left-foot strike that went in off Chris Weale's left-hand post to give Cardiff the advantage was Whittingham's 24th goal of the season, his 21st in the Championship, and will raise his market value still further.
Yet promotion to the Premier League, said to be worth £90 million to whichever team is successful at Wembley a week on Saturday, would end the financial uncertainty that has left all of Cardiff's squad vulnerable to predators and, on this evidence, the Welsh side look as strong as any of the contenders.
Leicester had gone into the semi-finals on a five-match winning sequence and seemed to have momentum in their court. Yet Cardiff, who had surrendered a 10-game unbeaten run by resting nine of yesterday's starting eleven for their final regular-season fixture, lost control of the game only after Whittingham's goal had prompted Leicester to redouble their efforts in the closing minutes.
Even then they produced resilient defending that deserved to preserve their lead. Mark Hudson, captain and the bulwark of their back four, tackled and blocked superbly, while goalkeeper David Marshall pulled off a brilliant save to keep out Andy King's header in the last of five minutes of added time.
"I don't know where the five minutes came from," Jones said afterwards. "I'm proud of the way my players stood up. The play-offs can be life-changing games and the nerves and the expectation always makes the first game difficult, so I could not have asked for much more.
"But I've come from a quiet dressing room because there is still another game to come and the job is not done. We are in front but there will be extra pressure in the home game because the players will feel there is a lot to lose."
Cardiff's organisation in the first half limited Leicester's threat to set-pieces. Martyn Waghorn's viciously struck, in-swinging corners were their most effective ploy, one of which stayed out only through Joe Ledley's goalline header.
On the counter, Cardiff made the better chances. Chopra missed narrowly after a fine run by Jay Bothroyd and hit a post after Ledley's pass had enabled Chris Burke to hit a near-post cross from the right.
Leicester had a penalty appeal dismissed after a Nolberto Solano cross struck Kevin McNaughton on the arm but did not show their best until Whittingham had scored, the manner of the goal raising questions about Leicester's decision to forego a defensive wall, which left Whittingham with a lot to aim at and goalkeeper Weale a lot to protect.
Matt Fryatt, a Leicester substitute, missed an opportunity after McNaughton and Mark Kennedy collided, then Paul Gallagher curled a shot narrowly wide. Nigel Pearson, the Leicester manager, believed the difference between the sides was negligible but conceded, after Marshall's save had denied him an equaliser, that Cardiff had a right to congratulate themselves.
"To be fair they put in a very good away performance," he said. "But there is still a lot of football left in the tie and I was pleased with the way we kept going." Nonetheless Cardiff, who last played at the top level 48 years ago, will be favourites to meet Blackpool or Nottingham Forest at Wembley.
Leicester City (4-1-4-1): Weale; Solano, Bruce, Hobbs, Berner; Wellens (N'Guessan 85); Gallagher, Spearing, King, Dyer (Fryatt 62); Waghorn (Kermorgant 76). Substitutes not used: Morrison, Oakley, Logan (gk), Adams.
Cardiff City (4-4-1-1): Marshall; McNaughton, Hudson, Blake, Kennedy; Burke (Etuhu 75), McPhail, Ledley, Whittingham; Chopra (McCormack 90); Bothroyd. Substitutes not used: Enckelman (gk), Quinn, Gyepes, Capaldi, Wildig.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Bookings: Leicester: Hobbs, Wellens. Cardiff: Bothroyd, Marshall
Man of the match: Hudson.
Attendance: 29,165.Reuse content