MIDDLESBROUGH arrived at the Cardiff City Stadium looking to upset the Welsh party.
And how they achieved it – Tony Mowbray’s side smashing Cardiff’s promotion chances in spectacular fashion.
The Bluebirds entered this game third in the npower Championship, a point behind Norwich with both sides playing in televised matches last night.
But home hopes were ended by Boro who tore them apart by opening up a three-goal lead inside 21 minutes as Leroy Lita’s 99th career goal and further strikes from Barry Robson and Richard Smallwood put Tony Mowbray’s men in total control.
The result condemned Cardiff to their heaviest home loss since their final match at Ninian Park against Ipswich in April, 2009.
And it meant the 1-0 win for Norwich in the late game at Portsmouth consigned Dave Jones’s team to the play-offs, unless the FA elect to mete out a heavy punishment to QPR.
Champions Rangers are awaiting the outcome of that disciplinary process which is expected to be completed later this week.
But the permutations at the top hold little interest to Mowbray.
The boss was just delighted to see his team continue their brilliant end-of-season run which has seen Boro lose only once in 11 matches.
“We can have some optimism for next season,” said Mowbray.
“It has been disappointing overall – we are mid-table and aspirations for promotion did not materialise.
“But I think there is enough optimism from results in the second half of the season to think that we could be in the mix (next year).
“If you look at the points, we are only another three or four wins away (from the promotion places). We have to be more consistent next season and see where that takes us.”
It was a painful evening for the Bluebirds and the smattering of fans who were still there at the death. But Mowbray made no apologies for gatecrashing the promotion party.
Stephen McManus and Tony McMahon were both fit to return from ankle injuries for Boro and it was McMahon who was involved in the opener as the Bluebirds got off to a nightmare start.
His long diagonal ball found Lita and the striker’s well-placed header beat the despairing dive of Tom Heaton to find the corner of the net with less than three minutes played.
It was soon 2-0 when Lita’s cross was turned into the far corner by Robson.
And the game was as good as over after just 21 minutes. A neat exchange between Robson and Marvin Emnes sent the striker into space.
Enmes cut in from the right to pull the ball back and find Smallwood for the young midfielder to fire beyond a flat-footed Heaton.
Cardiff almost found a way back into the game on the half-four mark as a defensive slip allowed Jay Bothroyd space, but the striker’s effort was tipped away by Jason Steele.
Kevin McNaughton almost gave Cardiff a lifeline early in the second half as he turned a Bellamy cross wide at the far post.
Bellamy was the creator again as Bothroyd flashed wastefully off-target from the edge of the box.
Michael Chopra came off the bench for the final 20 minutes before Chris Burke drove just wide.
Cardiff: Heaton, McNaughton, Keinan, Quinn (Chopra 72), Samuel (Koumas 31), Whittingham, McPhail (Blake 46), Burke, Olofinjana, Bellamy, Bothroyd. Subs Not Used: Bywater, Rae, Hudson, Parkin. Booked: Bothroyd, Keinan, Bellamy.
Middlesbrough: Steele, Hoyte, McManus, Rhys Williams, Taylor, Thomson, Robson (Flood 86), McMahon, Smallwood, Lita, Emnes (Franks 62). Subs Not Used: Smith, Haas, Kink, Halliday, Grounds. Booked: Hoyte, Smallwood, Thomson, Emnes, Rhys Williams, Steele. Goals: Lita 3, Robson 13, Smallwood 21.
Att: 25,183 Ref: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire).