Late agony, now 3 defeats on the trot for the Bluebirds
Cardiff City failed to move back into the Championship top two as they were beaten for the third successive game at home by Preston North End.
Skipper Tom Clarke bundled the winner in stoppage time to deservedly extend the visitors’ unbeaten run to nine.
The Bluebirds were well short of their best and can now only look on when leaders Wolves face second-placed Bristol City on Saturday.
Preston rise to seventh and are just a point outside the play-off berths.
Cardiff had never lost three successive games in Neil Warnock’s tenure as manager before this game, but he endured a miserable night where he presided over his 1,400th game as a manager.
The decisive moment of the match came in the last minute of normal time, with Clarke heading home from three yards after Neil Etheridge saved a point-blank effort from a corner.
The visitors were the better side in the first period, though that is a relative statement after a stale 45 minutes that were extremely short on quality. The hosts, especially, looked a pale imitation of the side that until recently had been sweeping all before them in the Championship.
In a half without a shot on target, Preston’s best opportunity came when Nathaniel Mendez-Laing came within a few inches of conceding a penalty after a foul right on the edge of the area, before the visitors saw another claim waved away after Lee Peltier looked to have handled the ball.
Jordan Hugill also hooked over, with Lee Tomlin and Joe Ralls missing half chances for the hosts, who were missing the injured Aron Gunnarsson and could only include talisman Junior Hoilett among their substitutes.
Tomlin angled a header towards goal shortly after the break, with Chris Maxwell finally saving the first effort on target in the match, but the second half continued like the first, with scarce incident and lots of long balls.
Preston, who were ninth in the table before kick-off, looked more than comfortable, but seemed to have squandered their best chance with 15 minutes remaining when Etheridge palmed away Tom Barkhuizen’s low effort with Bruno Ecuele Manga tackling Hugill and preventing what would have been a tap-in.
However, Clarke had the final say as Cardiff’s miserable festive period continued, despite sub Rhys Healey forcing Maxwell to save at the death.
Preston manager Alex Neil told the BBC: “It wasn’t a game for the football purist, it was a rough, scrappy match.
“But if there was any football being played, it was coming from us.
“I thought if anyone was going to win it, we deserved to.”
Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock told BBC Radio Wales: “I can’t fault the effort, they are trying their hardest, but I was disappointed with the result.
“We lacked a little bit of quality in certain areas. We are lacking in midfield but we only have two fit.
“It was a sloppy goal, I thought our goalkeeper should have had it really, but these are things that happen when things are going against you.
“I think it is up to me now to lift the lads.”
Mendez Laing 5.5
Healey 7 (for Tomlin 76 mins)
Hoilett 6 (for Feeney 64 mins)
Bogle 6 (for Zohore 83 mins)