Match ends, Cardiff City 2, Derby County 1.
Cardiff City 2-1 Derby County: Rooney error effectively ends Rams play-off hopes
A mistake from Wayne Rooney gifted Cardiff City a huge victory in their Championship play-off bid, as they effectively ended Derby County's hopes of gate-crashing the top six with a 2-1 win in the Welsh capital.
The crucial moment came just before the hour mark when England's record scorer dallied in possession and was dispossessed by Lee Tomlin, who raced clear and scored Cardiff's winner.
The visitors were the architects of their own downfall having also gifted Cardiff the lead when Jason Knight's awful back-pass was intercepted by Junior Hoilett, who calmly rolled the ball into the net in the first half.
Knight made amends with a thumping finish to level after a super Derby break, but then came the blunder from player-coach Rooney.
The win means Cardiff remain sixth and with their play-off hopes in their own hands, while Derby are six points adrift and - barring an extraordinary run of results - consigned to another season outside the top flight.
Both sides knew this contest could essentially end up defining their season, such are the fine margins with just six further points available as the Championship campaign comes to its late conclusion.
After making fast starts after the resumption of the campaign, both the Bluebirds and Rams were coming into this contest on the back of successive losses, knowing that a third defeat on the spin would potentially be a play-off destroying result. The Rams, especially, simply had to win.
Cardiff maintained sixth spot thanks to Leeds United's last-gasp win at Swansea City at the weekend, three points ahead of Tuesday night's visitors Derby, and they started the brighter side with the recalled Tomlin finding space and pulling strings.
Derby goalkeeper Ben Hamer, who came under fire from some Rams fans following their 3-1 loss to Brentford last time out, was replaced by Kelle Roos and it was from uncertainty in Derby's defence that Cardiff were gifted an opener.
Roos was exceptionally unlucky to be breached after just 16 minutes with the first chance of the contest after a horror moment from Knight, whose dreadful back-pass was intercepted by Hoilett who kept his composure to round the goalkeeper and slide into the empty goal.
But Roos then justified his selection with a brilliant stop to deny Tomlin from close range, after a rampaging Cardiff-counter-attack saw Nathaniel Mendez-Laing set Tomlin clear, only for the goalkeeper to smother.
Derby were struggling to test Cardiff, but after 30 minutes they produced a pulsating counter-attack to draw level.
Louie Sibley was the architect, driving forward and cleverly sliding the ball to Knight, who smashed home to atone for his earlier error.
The Rams improved after their equaliser but it was the hosts who were closest to going into the interval ahead when Hoilett's fabulous curling effort was brilliantly tipped behnd by Roos.
The keeper was also alert to the danger soon after when Tomlin danced his way through the Derby defence.
The Rams started the second half positively and might have gone ahead straight from the restart as Sibley's stinging effort was tipped behind by Alex Smithies.
However, Rooney then gifted Cardiff what proved to be the deciding goal as he failed to beat Tomlin after taking a short pass from Matt Clarke, with Tomlin able to go clear and create the angle to beat Roos.
The Bluebirds then contentedly allowed Derby possession as they cannily looked to break at speed, with the onus totally on the visitors to find a way back into things.
Both Mendez-Laing and Robert Glatzel failed to find the target on the counter-attack as Derby threw men forward, but in truth never really looked like levelling and only even threatened from a late Rooney freekick that missed the target.
Cardiff should have wrapped things up when sub Danny Ward found space and picked out Joe Ralls who saw his header smash back off the crossbar, before Mendez-Laing shot straight at Roos.
Cardiff City manager Neil Harris told BBC Sport Wales:
"I am a very happy manager. The importance tonight was winning the game and it was a game we thoroughly deserved to win.
"We have chased and chased. We were written off really. The play-offs was almost a free hit for us.
"We've kept chasing, but now the expectation is on us. The lads played with a bit of freedom and that's what we've got to do in the remaining games.
"We keep one eye on other teams, but we've got to enjoy this. How often do you get in these scenarios? We've got a chance for promotion... we have to really enjoy these moments.
"We've given ourselves a much better chance by winning tonight."
Derby County manager Phillip Cocu:
"It's mistakes which cost us the game. It's always something you try to avoid but you have to be solid in defence and not make mistakes. We didn't do that.
"In the last three games there have just been too many mistakes and they have been unnecessary - that's why we are not in the play-offs.
"Conceding poor goals is something we need to change for next season if we want to get into the play-offs.
"I can see the progress we have made this season, but in the end we are playing games to win them. We are mid-table and it's not good enough to get into the play-offs. They are out of sight."
- 15PackSubstituted forPatersonat 90+1'minutes
- 19Mendez-LaingSubstituted forB Smithat 90'minutes
- 17TomlinSubstituted forVaulksat 70'minutes
- 33HoilettBooked at 62mins
- 9GlatzelSubstituted forWardat 78'minutes
- 24B Smith
- 25LoweSubstituted forBogleat 68'minutes
- 3ForsythSubstituted forMaloneat 88'minutes
- 41BirdSubstituted forShinnieat 88'minutes
- 38KnightSubstituted forMarriottat 77'minutes
- 40SibleySubstituted forJozefzoonat 77'minutes
- Darren Bond
- Shots on Target
Second Half ends, Cardiff City 2, Derby County 1.
Graeme Shinnie (Derby County) wins a free kick on the left wing.
Foul by Callum Paterson (Cardiff City).
Tom Lawrence (Derby County) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Joe Bennett (Cardiff City).
Substitution, Cardiff City. Callum Paterson replaces Marlon Pack.
Substitution, Cardiff City. Brad Smith replaces Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.
Attempt missed. Jack Marriott (Derby County) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Tom Lawrence with a cross.
Attempt saved. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing (Cardiff City) right footed shot from the centre of the box is saved in the centre of the goal. Assisted by Joe Bennett.
Substitution, Derby County. Scott Malone replaces Craig Forsyth because of an injury.
Substitution, Derby County. Graeme Shinnie replaces Max Bird.
Craig Forsyth (Derby County) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by David Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City).
Joe Ralls (Cardiff City) hits the bar with a header from very close range. Assisted by Danny Ward with a cross.
Attempt missed. Tom Lawrence (Derby County) right footed shot from outside the box is high and wide to the right. Assisted by Wayne Rooney.
Matthew Clarke (Derby County) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Curtis Nelson (Cardiff City).
Corner, Cardiff City. Conceded by Kelle Roos.
Attempt saved. David Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) right footed shot from the left side of the six yard box is saved in the centre of the goal.