Mark Perrow reports from Cardiff City Stadium
A determined City display went unrewarded as a Fraizer Campbell brace secured victory for the hosts in the Severnside derby.
The former Sunderland striker broke the deadlock in first-half stoppage time to swing the balance in Cardiff’s favour, before an easy close range finish secured maximum points 13 minutes into the second half.
City had earlier withstood a number of first-half attacks with great resilience, but only grew into the game as an attacking force after Campbell’s second.
A dose of late drama ensued when Cardiff defender Ben Nugent headed into his own net in bizarre circumstances, but it would prove too little, too late for the visitors.
Sean O’Driscoll was without Greg Cunningham, who picked up an injury in training and was replaced by Richard Foster, making his first start since the new head coach’s opening game in charge at Leeds a month ago.
It was the hosts who started on the front foot, forcing an early corner before Craig Noone’s dangerous low cross somehow found its way to Mark Hudson at the back post, but the defender was unable to adjust his feet and the ball escaped into the grasp of former Cardiff stopper Tom Heaton in the City goal.
Noone was proving the Bluebirds’ greatest threat, and soon latched on to a raking diagonal pass, skipped past Brendan Moloney and let fly with a well-struck shot fortunately too close to Heaton, who beat the ball straight back into play.
City’s first opportunity arrived on 18 minutes, when Stephen Pearson fed Steven Davies in midfield, whose perfectly weighted high ball in behind the Cardiff defence fell invitingly for Jon Stead, who took the pass first time on the volley only to see his effort clear the crossbar by a couple of yards.
But the red-shirted hosts remained on top, and Craig Bellamy threatened to break the deadlock in style with a superb free kick from all of 35 yards, which dipped and swerved before Heaton got a crucial touch on to the crossbar to keep the former Liverpool and Manchester City forward at bay.
The pressure was increasing with every passing minute. Bellamy’s next contribution came from the left wing, when his inswinging cross was met by the head of Noone, who glanced the ball against the head of Foster before the ball trickled agonisingly wide of Heaton’s right-hand post.
The City keeper had to be alert on the half-hour mark to keep out fellow Manchester United youth product Campbell. When Matthew Connolly’s deep cross was headed back across goal, Liam Fontaine made a crucial intervention before the ball fell for Campbell, whose attempted shot back across goal was expertly repelled by the orange-clad Heaton.
Cardiff’s next assault came courtesy of Foster’s generosity, when the left-back’s attempted diagonal pass was picked off in midfield and sent long downfield for Bellamy to chase.
When Heaton won the race to head partially clear, the former England Under-21 international was immediately on the retreat as the ball eventually fell to Noone to shoot goalwards from 18 yards but inches wide of the far post.
With just one minute of added time, it looked as if City had done enough to escape with a clean sheet still intact only for Campbell to strike in the dying seconds.
Collecting the ball on the right flank, the home debutant neatly exchanged passes with Tommy Smith inside the penalty area and cleverly clipped the ball over the advancing Heaton for the timeliest of openers.
Cardiff started the second half on the front foot too, as Noone’s cross looked to pick out Campbell at the far post, who felt he was impeded in trying to force the ball home but City survived the ensuing penalty appeals.
The first foray into home territory since the break saw Liam Kelly let fly with a speculative dipping volley from 40 yards that temporarily had David Marshall worried but ultimately landed on top of the keeper’s net on its way over.
But things were about to get worse for City when Campbell doubled Cardiff’s lead on 58 minutes. If his first was well worked, his second was a gift, as Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw was not cleared and fell kindly at the feet of the striker, who even had time to take a touch before dispatching his third goal in as many games since arriving from the North East in the January window.
After that City responded well, enjoying their best spell of the contest in possession, but it was not until 14 minutes from time that Marshall was finally called upon to repel Davies’ vicious 25-yarder, but the keeper flung himself to his right to turn the ball away.
Some enterprising football from the league leaders threatened a late third, but substitute Don Cowie was denied by a last-ditch block at the end of a flowing move.
O’Driscoll introduced Albert Adomah
and Neil Kilkenny, as well as Brian Howard ten minutes from time for his City debut, and the former Portsmouth midfielder’s cute disguised pass presented an opening for Davies in the closing stages, but a sliding tackle proved just enough to put the striker off his stride and he was unable to connect sweetly with his 12-yard effort.
There was still time for a comical own goal from Nugent to cause some late nervousness in the home ranks, as the defender’s attempted cushioned header back to Marshall caught the keeper off guard and trickled into his right-hand corner.