Cardiff's tenure at the Championship summit, which began in mid-September, was terminated last night in an extraordinary five-minute spell after the hour mark. Ricardo Fuller, Liam Lawrence and Mamady Sidibe all scored for a previously shot-shy Stoke, who cemented their top-six spot in resounding fashion.
Fuller, the Jamaica captain, proved unplayable after coming off the bench. Cardiff's collapse was capped by the 85th-minute dismissal of Stephen McPhail for flicking a hand at Lee Hendrie. The Stoke midfielder, who has inspired their rise from the bottom three while on loan from Aston Villa, fell melodramatically to the turf.
The Cardiff manager, Dave Jones, pledged to "stay strong" in the promotion race after a fourth defeat in eight games. However, he was more heated about what he saw as Hendrie's role in the straight red shown to McPhail by Mike Riley. "The way he went down, I thought he'd been shot or hit by a sledgehammer," he said. "Stevie knows he can't do that, but Hendrie must take a long, hard look at himself. I'd rather he'd got sent off for sticking a good right hook on him. He was lucky I didn't, because that was the way I felt. That's not acceptable in my game."
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, claimed the incident stemmed from a bad challenge on Hendrie by Michael Chopra. Pulis, a South Walian, also pointed out that the referee was only two yards from McPhail and the former England player.
The outcome might have been different if Chopra had not headed wide from three yards after Paul Parry's 18th-minute cross - almost the only scoring opportunity of a forgettable first half.
Soon after half-time, Pulis sent on Fuller for the hapless Vincent Pericard. Within seven minutes, after Alan Wright's pass put Roger Johnson under unnecessary pressure, the substitute ended the impasse. Johnson's slip allowed Lawrence to find Fuller, whose angled drive beat Neil Alexander.
Cardiff caved in. Lawrence, who is on loan from Sunderland, fired his first goal for Stoke following Hendrie's 63rd-minute corner, and two minutes later Fuller set up Sidibe from 16 yards as a shell-shocked defence stood off. Stoke now have five consecutive wins and have not conceded a goal in nearly eight hours. Pulis, accused of negativity early in the season, is suddenly having to dampen expectations. "We're not even halfway there yet," he said, "so we shan't be getting carried away."
Stoke City (4-4-1-1): Simonsen; Hoefkens, Duberry, Higginbotham, Griffin; Lawrence (Berger, 68), Diao, Russell, Hendrie (Brammer, 88); Sidibe; Pericard
(Fuller, 53). Substitutes not used: Hill, Buxton.
Cardiff City (4-4-2): Alexander; McNaughton, Purse, Johnson, Wright; Parry, Scimeca, McPhail, Ledley (Kamara, 66); Chopra, Thompson (Campbell, 76). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Cooper, Gunter.
Referee: M Riley (W Yorkshire).