Cardiff City produced a colossal defensive display at promotion rivals Leicester City to cement their position as the Championship Christmas No.1.
On the back foot for large spells of the game, City defended bravely in a frenetic first-half in which the home side peppered the Cardiff goal only to be continually thwarted by the excellent David Marshall. The second-half was assured, and composed, and incredibly tactically astute. The Foxes threw everything at Cardiff, but were unable to play their way through a City side who worked tirelessly for each other and fought to the death for what could turn out to be three invaluable points.
The difference, aside from some titanic blocks from Mark Hudson and Ben Turner, turned out to be Craig Bellamy’s first half strike. It came during City’s only period of dominance and was brilliantly crafted through the industry of Craig Conway who teed up Bellamy perfectly with a well flighted ball from the right that was guided home on the half-volley.
In fact, it might very well have been three shortly after as both Jordon Mutch, with a header, and Bellamy missed good chances that could really have put Cardiff in the driving seat. Such a score-line would have been incredibly harsh on Leicester at that stage though. They played some lovely flowing football at times, turning defense into attack in the blink of an eye through the pace and direct running of, in particular, Lloyd Dyer, Anthony Knockaert and the exceptional Andy King.
But a combination of David Marshall’s safe hands and some sturdy woodwork kept the Foxes at bay and set the platform for the victorious second-half that followed.
On a miserable December afternoon in front of a raucous support which included over two thousand traveling supporters, it was the home side who settled the quicker and dominated the early exchanges. Cardiff looked sloppy in possession and contributed to a scrappy opening which, of note, saw only former City loanee Danny Drinkwater blaze over from just outside the area.
David Marshall, who has been busy and brilliant in equal measure of late, was kept on his toes throughout this afternoon also and it was David Nugent who was first to test the City No.1. Played in on the right of the area, he held off Ben Turner well and fired a shot low, across Marshall who beat the ball away well and Mark Hudson was able to calmly play the ball out of the danger area.
Next it was Wes Morgan’s turn to try and beat Marshall, but his bullet header was instinctively beaten up rather than out by a firm left hand and with Jamie Vardy’s follow up looking goal-bound, Andrew Taylor arrived in the nick of time to scoop the ball away from the line. The ball still wasn’t cleared effectively though and when it was recycled Andy King bent a lovely shot around Marshall that bounced back off the inside of the post and directly to Vardy who, in stride, clattered the ball against the crossbar no more than six yards out. The former Fleetwood man’s blushes were saved somewhat by a linesman’s raised flag though.
Attacking traffic was firmly one-way at this point and Marshall had to be alert again on the sixteen minute mark to push away Anthony Knockaert’s stinging low drive. Five minutes later and the same man had again dropped off into some space to shoot. This one moved wickedly in flight, but the result was the same - a solid save from Marshall.
It took City twenty minutes to work a move of any note, but when they did it was delightful. Peter Whittingham, Jordon Mutch and Kim Bo-Kyung all involved in working the ball wide on the right in congested space. There waiting was Craig Conway who delivered a brilliantly testing ball that only just evaded the head of Heidar Helguson attacking the penalty spot.
This finally sparked a period of sustained City possession, and as all good teams do, they took advantage. Mutch was integral, as again was Conway, who not for the first time, turned Paul Konchesky inside and out before floating a cross to the edge of the area. There waiting was Craig Bellamy who caught it perfectly on the half-volley and buried his effort low and into the far corner.
Leicester City 0 - 1 CARDIFF CITY (Craig Bellamy 25mins)
City were now on the front foot suddenly and squandered two chances in quick succession to really turn the metaphorical screw. Firstly, Mutch found himself unmarked eight yards out but couldn’t direct his free-header anywhere near goal. Then, after a Whittingham free-kick had been delivered straight into the mixer and caused panic, the ball dropped kindly to Bellamy on the left of goal but he could only blaze his dipping effort over the bar.
With the first-half frenetically heading towards a conclusion, the home side found themselves desperately unlucky not to be on level terms. Welsh international Andy King produced a moment of magic in front of his own dug-out to skip around a flat-footed Matthew Connolly and race at the heart of the Cardiff defence; reaching the edge of the area, he again went for the curling effort with his in-step and bent the ball inches wide of the far post.
Cardiff still had one final Leicester onslaught to endure though. Lloyd Dyer and Paul Konchesky worked an overlap on the left, Vardy met the cross with a flicked header but it landed atop the City bar and thankfully bounced safe.
HT: Leicester City 0 - 1 Cardiff City
Cardiff began the second-half with much more command of possession and could have doubled their lead just minutes in. Bellamy out-muscled Morgan to get to a long-ball; he turned intelligently towards his support runners, but his cute lay-off towards Helguson was too delicately under-hit.
Leicester City Substitution: Martyn Waghorn replaced Jamie Vardy (50mins)
Cardiff City Substitution: Rudy Gestede replaced Heidar Helguson (51mins)
Cardiff City Substitution: Don Cowie replaced Kim Bo-Kyung (55mins)
Matthew Connolly ensured himself a one-game suspension for five yellow cards when he hacked down the lively Martyn Waghorn to halt a break-away near midfield and earned himself a yellow card. That marked his fifth booking of the season and an automatic one-match suspension to be served next time out against Crystal Palace.
Despite still spending large periods of the match on the back-foot, Cardiff were looking dangerous on the break and Jordon Mutch’s energetic runs through the heart of the midfield area were causing problems. It was he who played in substitute Rudy Gestede on the left of the area midway through the second-half but was denied a shooting opportunity by a perfectly executed sliding tackle.
Leicester City Substitution: Ben Marshall replaced Anthony Knockaert (69mins)
Leicester City Substitution: Jesse Lingard replaced Lloyd Dyer (69mins)
Cardiff’s defensive display was now bordering on the heroic, and epitomised completely by the organisation, and bravery of captain Mark Hudson. He sheriff-ed the back-four through an intense ninety minutes and put his body on the line on countless occasions, no more so than a dangled boot that repelled a rasping drive from Andy King.
The Foxes' one real chance of the second forty-five came through Zak Whitbread’s header, but the fantastic Craig Conway had held his position well at the back post and nodded the ball to safety off the line.
Cardiff City Substitution: Aron Gunnarsson replaced Jordon Mutch (76mins)
With eleven minutes of regulation play remaining, City missed a golden opportunity to seal the game. Gestede, who played a vital role after coming off the bench, played in Bellamy on the left of the area, and rather than angling a shot across goal he instead looked to square to the arriving Aron Gunnarsson at the back post. He got his feet in an almighty tangle though, and as Gestede slid to retrieve the ball, he could only direct it straight at the grateful Kasper Schmeichel.
The miss set up an intense final period as Leicester threw wave after wave of attacks at Cardiff, but were unable to breakdown a well organised side seemingly determined to both prove, and hang onto, their status as the league’s very best.
FT: Leicester City 0 - 1 Cardiff City