Cardiff claimed their ninth successive home victory with an emphatic performance over Middlesbrough.
The match was disrupted by injury, with Cardiff losing Andrew Taylor and Ben Turner in the first half whilst Mark Hudson required stitches.
But within 18 minutes, the Bluebirds had found the back of the net, Connolly rising to meet a Whittingham corner for his fourth this season. Cardiff's dominance was inevitably disrupted by the tactical reshuffle, but throughout the first half they looked comfortable and Middlesbrough never really threatened apart from a golden opportunity that McDonald put over the bar in the dying seconds.
The second half brought more of the same from Cardiff, although Middlesbrough were gradually starting to grow into the game. With Cardiff protecting the lead and breaking with pace and prowess, 'Boro enjoyed much time on the ball but were unable to make it count, largely due to some resolute defending.
Joe Mason arguably should have won a penalty which would most likely have put the game to bed, but Referee Langford waved away appeals much to the crowd's dismay. Craig Bellamy came on to rapturous applause, making his first appearance for a month, as Cardiff continued to keep 'Boro at bay right until the final whistle. A deserved victory means City replace 'Boro in second place, with Malky Mackay saluting the fantastic home support and the ever-dangerous Craig Noone picking up man of the match.
For the second week running, Cardiff faced a team within touching distance on the table, with Middlesbrough very much in form and nine games unbeaten in all competitions. With City looking for a ninth straight home league win – currently the best home record in Europe – all was set for a thrilling encounter at CCS.
Cardiff kicked off attacking the Grange End, Kim-Bo Kyung capitalising on a loose ball to play Mason through but the attack fizzled out. On three minutes, Seb Hines received a booking for a controversial challenge on Craig Noone, giving Whittingham an early chance to try his luck from 25 yards. His effort rebounded of the wall and fell to Kim, who sent an effort inches over the bar.
Marshall did well to read the game, rushing out to collect a through ball, as Middlesbrough probed for an opening. Andrew Taylor needed treatment 8 minutes in, as neither team could assert their dominance on the game. Ben Turner put in a fantastic sliding challenge to cut out a Middlesbrough attack, but three minutes later it was his turn to walk to the sidelines, unable to continue. Ben Nugent replaced him at centre back, the youngster making his Championship début, an ayatollah rousing the home fans.
Substitution Cardiff: Ben Nugent on for Ben Turner (14 mins)
Whittingham sent a great lofted ball down the middle to Helguson, who's glancing header couldn't beat Steele; the Middlesbrough goalkeeper collected comfortably. Marshall then punched a deflected shot away, Noone picking up the ball and beating a man inside the Cardiff half before playing it to Mason. The striker flicked his header on to Helguson, who held it up well before playing it down the line to Gunnarsson, his cross earning a corner. The Cardiff playmaker Whittingham stepped up, whipping a beautiful free kick to within a yard of the back post; Matthew Connolly rose to meet it, sending his header past Steele to mark his fourth goal of the season.
GOAL: CARDIFF CITY 1–0 MIDDLESBROUGH (Connolly, 18 mins)
Cardiff were now in full flow, Whittingham puling the strings with his exquisite range of passing. Hudson picked up the ball 30 yards out, sending a rasping drive just over, as Kim and Noone continued to look threatening on either wing. Unfortunately, a second defensive reshuffle was needed as Taylor was forced to go off through injury, replaced by Joe Ralls, the versatile midfielder dropping to left back.
Substitution Cardiff: Joe Ralls on for Andrew Taylor (25 mins)
'Boro captain Leadbitter sent an effort toward the Cardiff goal that nearly lobbed Marshall who managed to push the effort over the bar, and Cardiff were forced to defend successive corners, before breaking emphatically. Gunnarsson slipped at the vital moment however, and possession was handed back. Faris Haroun was then replaced by Richard Smallwood for the third substiution in under thirty first-half minutes.
Substitution Middlesbrough: Richard Smallwood on for Faris Haroun (29 mins)
Middlesbrough earned a free kick on the right, Ledesma sending a lofted cross that seemed to take an age to drop, before falling onto the bar and bouncing over. It was Middlesbrough's most convincing effort thus far, although Cardiff continued to control possession, Helguson and Mason proving a constant threat to the 'Boro defence. The Icelandic international picked up the ball on the right, before intelligently laying Kim off on the edge of the box; the South Korean was closed down, but Cardiff so far had continually shown their quality. Leadbitter then hit a right footed shot well wide of Marshall's goal, as Cardiff's luck again told, another injury developing; in the forty-second minute; Gunnarsson left the pitch for treatment, although he returned to the action within a minute.
Kim-Bo Kyung took an excellent touch on the half way line to beat two 'Boro players, before playing Helguson in, but his drive was blocked as five minutes of injury time were announced. Middlesbrough's best chance of the game so far came as Ledesma chipped a fantastic ball over the Cardiff defence to Scott McDonald, but as the whole ground thought it was 1-1, he sent a lobbed effort well over the bar.
HALF TIME: CARDIFF CITY 1 – 0 MIDDLESBROUGH
McDonald opened the second half with a shot that Marshall collected comfortably, however Middlesbrough mounted a good continued attack, forcing Cardiff to concede a corner not long after. Marshall punched the corner away from just a yard out, as 'Boro floated more crosses in, eventually earning another corner. The referee saw something in the box however, and the resultant Cardiff free kick relieved the best spell of pressure from the away team so far.
In-keeping with Cardiff's terrible injury luck, Hoyte floated a cross in that Scott McDonald put high and wide with Hudson left grounded. Nugent, who had been dominant so far, now partnered Connolly at centre back as Gunnarsson dropped to right back, before Hudson returned to the pitch with stitches. Noone was then brought down as Cardiff broke with pace, and Whittingham's optimistic free kick beat everyone bar Steele, who reacted late, diving down to his right.
Jutkiewicz fired a warning shot over the bar after beating the Cardiff offside trap, and a minute later he was replaced by ex-Swansea forward Marvin Emnes.
Substitution Middlesbrough: Marvin Emnes on for Lukas Jutkiewicz (60 mins)
A minute later, Cardiff deployed their final substitution, Craig Bellamy making a much awaited return to the team, replacing Aron Gunnarsson, who had been carrying a knock.
Substitution Cardiff: Craig Bellamy on for Aron Gunnarsson (61 mins)
Kim-Bo Kyung moved to partner Whittingham in central midfield, as Bellamy made an instant impact, picking up the ball on the left and laying a ball square that Cardiff couldn't meet. Mason then went down in the box for what looked like a certain penalty, but referee Langford waved away protests. Leadbitter hit a fantastic long range effort that Marshall caught, as Middlesbrough continued to apply the pressure, a deflected McDonald shot caught by Marshall on the line. Cardiff were performing fantastically, considering the injuries picked up and continued shuffling around the pitch; but the game was still open, 'Boro putting shots consistently high and wide, whilst Cardiff looked to break quickly.
Substitution Middlesbrough: Nicky Bailey on for George Friend (71 mins)
As Middlesbrough brought on another striker in the form of Nicky Bailey, Noone switched the ball excellently to Bellamy, Cardiff exchanging passes well before Bellamy's effort fell to Steele. Emnes then wasted a golden opportunity, his header bouncing over the goal. The striker nearly made amends seconds later, picking up McDonald's flick on, twisting and turning deep in the Cardiff box before seeing his effort deflected wide, Middlesbrough's first corner earning a second. The referee again correctly flagged for a foul on Marshall, as the game entered the last fifteen minutes.
Kim picked the ball up inside the Cardiff half, releasing Bellamy with a great ball, but the Welsh winger was penalised for a foul before he could make something of it. Middlesbrough were then controversially awarded a corner that incensed the home crowd, but Marshall collected routinely to dispel pressure.
Cardiff were defending heroically and the crowd were definitely playing their part, cheering every tackle and interception. Middlesbrough had enjoyed much of the ball, and were looking dangerous without really testing Marshall. It was back-to-the-wall, but Cardiff were absorbing the pressure brilliantly, never gifting 'Boro possession, always making the tackle. Out of position Ralls and débutant Nugent were both excellent, alongside Hudson and Connolly. Noone twice picked the ball up on the right, and attacked with promising runs, but 'Boro defended well as the fourth official indicated 4 minutes of added time. Leadbitter again hit an effort from range, but it flew to the right of the post.
Cardiff's final chance came as Noone whipped a cross in to the unmarked Helguson, but he couldn't direct his header goalward. As the referee blew, CCS erupted; Cardiff have now taken 27 points out of 27 at home, earning another deserved win that will be remembered for its heriocs.
FULL TIME: CARDIFF CITY 1–0 MIDDLESBROUGH