Cardiff City 0-1 Wolves

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All five of Ruben Neves’ goals for Wolves this season have come from outside the area

Cardiff City missed two stoppage-time penalties as they lost to Championship leaders Wolves in a dramatic finale.

At a packed Cardiff City Stadium, Ruben Neves scored a brilliant second-half free-kick from 25 yards.

After being bundled over in the box, Cardiff’s Gary Madine saw his low penalty saved by John Ruddy.

Moments later, Junior Hoilett blasted a spot-kick against the bar as Wolves extended their lead at the top of the table to nine points.

They need only five points from the final five games of the season to seal a return to the Premier League.

It was a stupefying finish to what had otherwise been something of a slow burner – an absorbing but unspectacular encounter between two very different but well-matched teams.

It was also a demoralising end to the game for Cardiff, who were twice given hope of rescuing a point when referee Mike Dean pointed to the spot – only for their missed penalties to consign them to a first defeat in 14 games.

Their despair was in startling contrast to the jubilation of their opponents, whose coaches and substitutes rushed on to the pitch at the full-time whistle, while their travelling supporters celebrated with riotous gusto in the stands.

The Wolves celebrations seemed to anger Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, who refused to shake hands with counterpart Nuno Espirito Santo at full-time and said after the game that he “did not want to see” the Portuguese.

Nuno Espirito Santo joined his players on the pitch to celebrate at full-time

Wolves two wins from Premier League

While Wolves need only two wins to secure promotion, Cardiff remain five points clear of third-placed Fulham in a battle for the second automatic promotion place which promises to go down to the wire.

Fulham visit Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday and, with the Londoners on an 18-game unbeaten run, Cardiff will be looking over their shoulders.

Despite their advantage over Fulham, Warnock has always said the play-offs are Cardiff’s target, although this is more than likely a little mischievous from the wily veteran of seven promotions.

Cardiff faced Wolves in the knowledge they needed only a point to be guaranteed at least a top-six spot but, like their opponents here, they had their eyes on a bigger and better prize.

With a record league crowd of 29,317 gathered under the lights at Cardiff City Stadium, there was a frisson of anticipation for this meeting between the Championship’s two leading sides.

It was an intriguing clash of styles, with the patient, technically accomplished visitors confronted by an abrasive, functional Cardiff side, built very much in the image of their manager.

The hosts looked to fuel the fervent atmosphere with their direct approach, Sol Bamba heading one of their many dangerous set-pieces wide.

Wolves, by contrast, sought a more measured approach, dominating possession and slowing the tempo as they built their attacks gradually, with Neves and Diogo Jota both testing home goalkeeper Neil Etheridge with powerful efforts.

This was the style which had kept Santo’s men at the top of the Championship since October, and it paid dividends once again against their closest rivals for the title.

Stoppage-time drama

After Leo Bonatini rounded Etheridge and struck the post, Neves sent the travelling fans wild with a brilliant curling free-kick from 25 yards.

The real drama, however, came in added time.

Wolves captain Conor Coady had his head in his hands when Dean adjudged him to have fouled Madine in the area, although he was given a reprieve when Ruddy – diving low to his left – saved the striker’s poorly struck spot-kick.

Astonishingly, another penalty followed moments later when Aron Gunnarsson was fouled.

But just as Wolves thought victory had been snatched away from them, Hoilett smashed his effort against the bar to spark scenes of unadulterated jubilation among the visitors.

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