Leicester did their play-off hopes no favours as Peter Whittingham curled home a superb late free-kick to hand Cardiff the advantage going into Wednesday’s crucial second leg.
Whittingham’s goal scored with around 12 minutes of normal time remaining proved decisive in the end, but Leicester will feel aggrieved after a questionable performance from Premier League referee Alan Wiley.
The Foxes were denied what they thought were two clear penalties for handball, the appeals for neither of which were given on a frustrating afternoon at the Walkers.
Manager Nigel Pearson kept faith with Alex Bruce at centre back, whilst there was also a starting place for Nobby Solano at right back with Michael Morrison only recently returning from injury.
Solano — Hobbs — Bruce — Berner
Gallagher — Spearing — Wellens — King — Dyer
A sunny afternoon at Filbert Way was reflected by a bright start to the game from both sides, the visitors taking the early initiative to craft the early pressure. Jay Bothroyd’s dangerous effort was just a whisker away as the ball flashed past the post.
But Leicester were not to be deterred by their early scare and took hold of the next passage to test Marshall’s goal with a series of corners which were dealt with well by the Cardiff defence.
In truth neither side managed to test the opposition goalkeeper in the first period, a testament to the defences of each team in a surprisingly open affair. But despite the lack of action from Chris Weale it was the visitors who were undoubtedly proving the greatest threat.
Leicester wasted two free-kicks in glorious positions through Gallagher and then Solano, before Michael Chopra raced up the other end to flash a shot narrowly past the post when many expected him to score.
Bothroyd had proved a thorn in the Foxes side from the word go, his robust yet agile approach proving difficult to deal with for both Hobbs and Bruce at the heart of Leicester’s backline.
The home side’s biggest scare of the first half came with just five minutes remaining when Chris Burke’s cross was turned onto the post by Chopra. In a disappointing half it was Leicester who were craving half-time, relief sensed all too much when the whistle finally arrived.
The break allowed manager Nigel Pearson to inject some stern words into his side, and in fairness Leicester looked a refreshed unit in the second period.
A pot shot from Jay Spearing sailed over the crossbar before Bothroyd powered a header inches over the crossbar from Kevin McNaughton’s perfect cross.
This appeared to spark Leicester into life, and they themselves came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock when Richie Wellens shot just wide of the post after a spell of good pressure.
Lloyd Dyer flashed an effort narrowly over, before the winger was replaced by fans’ favourite Matty Fryatt on the hour mark.
The Foxes were denied what they thought was a blatant handball by McNaughton inside the penalty area, but referee Alan Wiley waved away appeals deeming it unintentional.
Leicester continued to threaten the Cardiff goal with corners in abundance, but the Bluebirds’ defence held firm to stave off the influx of balls arriving in the area.
Former Fox-loanee Kelvin Etuhu replaced Chris Burke with 15 minutes remaining, as Pearson introduced Yann Kermorgant for Martyn Waghorn moments later.
And Kermorgant’s first contribution was to give away the free-kick which would prove fatal. A free-kick which would also bring about a comedy of errors with it too.
Despite initial contact occuring two yards away from the byline, referee Wiley allowed Whittingham to take his kick in line with the penalty area despite regular appeals from the home crowd. For a player who had previously found the net an incredible 23 times this season from the left wing, yardage would make all the difference.
And sure enough the former-Villa man stepped up to curl the ball brilliantly in off the post to give Dave Jones’ side the lead. The naivety of goalkeeper Weale was all too painful to watch, as no man on the post and just a one-man wall was put into place against a notoriously expert set-piece taker.
But Leicester could and should have levelled things up with seven minutes of normal time remaining. Nobby Solano’s perfect ball through to Fryatt set up the striker for a one-on-one situation with Marshall, but a feeble attempt was all the 24-year-old could manage in a gilt-edged opportunity.
From here on the pressure was piled on the Cardiff defence, Paul Gallagher next coming close to level things up with a curled effort which flew just over.
Thoughts that it simply wasn’t going to be City’s day were almost confirmed when substitute Ross McCormack was denied by a brilliant Alex Bruce challenge to keep the Foxes in the tie.
Leicester continued to bombard the Cardiff goal in the late stages to set up a painful finale for the Bluebirds’ travelling support, but corner after corner was once again dealt with by the visitors.
That was until the last minute of the five added on when Bruce rose highest only to see his header saved magnificently by Marshall to sustain Cardiff’s crucial advantage. Those previous thoughts were confirmed in an instant- it’s a cruel old game.
In truth the visitors were the better side throughout the contest, but Leicester will still walk away disappointed after both Fryatt’s glorious opportunity to level and terrible refereeing from Alan Wiley.
Pearson now must take his side on a daunting trip to the Welsh capital where Leicester must win to stand any chance of making it through to that cherished final at Wembley.
You know what they say, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. And I don’t see anybody singing just yet…