Two penalties were to bring leg-weary Preston North End to their knees as Cardiff won the battle of two teams with eyes on a late play-off push.
The Lilywhites’ display in South Wales was somewhat off-key when compared to some of the others in the five games they had previously gone unbeaten.
Simon Grayson felt things had caught up with his side following on from that terrific all-action win over Sheffield Wednesday and then the victory against Charlton Athletic.
It still needed penalties to beat them, although not in the cup-tie sense.
Twice referee Brendan Malone pointed to the spot for fouls and twice Anthony Pilkington did the business from 12 yards.
Both penalties fell into the category of being rather needlessly conceded but it could be argued with some justification that the second bordered on the harsh.
There was no doubt that Paul Huntington had tripped Pilkington for the first just moments before half-time.
As for the other in the closing 10 minutes of the contest, there was a slight tug of Tom Lawrence’s shirt by Paul Gallagher – but enough for a penalty?
The assistant on that side of the pitch certainly thought so – it was him who signalled that Gallagher had acted illegally.
A bit earlier, North End could have done with some benevolence from the other assistant.
His flag went up to deny Adam Reach an equaliser, the front man having met Callum Robinson’s cross on the volley.
Reach was onside but Joe Garner was judged not to have been, after making a movement towards the ball before it got to Reach.
We could talk for hours about the grey areas of the modern offside law but it would be academic.
North End were not to be denied their place on the scoresheet though, a late shot from Robinson halving the deficit and giving them hope going into injury-time.
The substitute’s strike was to prove a consolation only, though.
On the balance of play and chances, you would say that the home side shaded it and just about deserved the three points.
There was not a huge deal between the sides, neither particularly impressing in their third game in a week.
But you would argue that Cardiff just had that extra bit of edge going forward, even if they had to rely on the two spot-kicks for the win.
Pilkington was the game’s best player, hitting the post with a somewhat fortuitous effort and forcing Anders Lindegaard into the first part of a wonderful double save.
The Cardiff front man is a Lancashire lad playing a long way from home, brought up in Blackburn.
Released as a youngster by Rovers, he dropped into non-league football and was a student at Myerscough College near Preston.
Huddersfield gave him a route into the full-time game, with big-money moves taking him first to Norwich and then Cardiff.
Playing up front rather than on the wing where he has spent most of his career, Pilkington got his side on the front foot in the first half.
It was that energy which North End struggled to cope with until a half-time switch livened them up.
Grayson said: “We didn’t play with the energy and zest which we have shown in a lot of games this season.
“Perhaps the third game in a week caught up with us a little bit.
“The first penalty coming when it did, changed what we had to say at half-time.
“In the second half we changed the system a couple of times and had to make sure we came out with a bit more urgency about us.
“I thought we looked like a different team in the second half, we caused them a few problems.
“After we conceded the second, we responded well and it looked like we might go on to get something out of the game.
“We have not had to suffer disappointment very much over the last few months with the run we’ve been on, so I’m not going to get too down.”
In the grand scheme of things, defeat was not overly costly for PNE.
They dropped back a place to 10th but have not lost too much ground on the top six.
Fifth-placed Derby lost, while Sheffield Wednesday in sixth, drew on Friday night. In the last week, North End have actually clawed back four points on the Owls.
Immediately above them, Cardiff are now four points ahead and Ipswich went three in front of Grayson’s men.
But Birmingham lost, so the damage could have been much worse than it was.
The play-offs remain an outside bet but, that said, are still within touch.
There are a dozen games to come over the next nine weeks, 36 points up for grabs.
Saturday was a setback but not a mortal wound.
It might be that for the next game against Brighton, Grayson freshens things up.
At the plush but rather soulless Cardiff City Stadium, he had stuck with the same XI for a fourth game running.
North End were in their tried and tested 3-5-2 formation, used home and away of late.
Like against Charlton, they changed to 4-3-3 at the interval, Robinson entering the fray.
In midweek it had been Bailey Wright making way, this time Huntington got the hook.
Any thoughts that Grayson had of starting Robinson had been taken away from him by the youngster being ill.
He was unable to train on Thursday and Friday, with him travelling separately to Wales as a precaution. The 48-hour bug did not stop him making an impact for the second game running, or indeed scoring.
To see him start against Brighton would not come as a surprise.
North End had a few half-chances in the opening 45 minutes but the better ones fell Cardiff’s way.
Lindegaard’s double save in the 27th minute to push out Pilkington’s near-post header and then block Lex Immers’ follow-up, was stunning.
The hosts went in front in the 44th minute, Huntington going to ground to bring down Pilkington as he went down the left-hand side of the box.
PILKINGTON slammed the penalty down the middle, Lindegaard diving to his right.
In the second half, PNE were on the front foot but were unable to test Cardiff keeper David Marshall.
Reach’s chalked-off effort came from a Robinson cross which was pinpoint accurate.
Cardiff doubled their lead after Gallagher gave a tug on Lawrence’s shirt as he chased him into the box.
For the second time in the afternoon, PILKINGTON was emphatic from the spot.
North End did not give up, making a game of it with a goal in the 87th minute.
Ben Pearson played Greg Cunningham away down the left, the Irishman cutting it back for ROBINSON to steer a shot into the far corner.