Chris Martin’s 14th goal of the season was not enough as a goal in each half saw Derby County fall to a 2-1 defeat at play-off chasing Cardiff City.

Bruno Ecuele Manga broke the deadlock in a game that had been built up considerably over the course of the week, before Martin’s header in the early stages of the second half levelled matters in a contest of very few clear cut opportunities.

Cardiff, however, made the most of their strongest spell of the game as Stuart O’Keefe steered in a loose ball from a corner to seal all three points.

The defeat for Derby, the club’s third on the road in four games, saw their cushion in the Sky Bet Championship play-off positions cut to just two points.

In front of the largest attendance recorded at the Cardiff City Stadium since it first opened, the Bluebirds began the contest in the Welsh Capital with a sense of urgency as they sought to unlock the Derby defence early on.

Playing with purpose, intent and pace, traits that quickly disappeared from the game as it wore on, Russell Slade’s side quickly penned the Rams deep into their own territory – a combination that soon saw Joe Ralls register the shot of the contest, but his volley whistled narrowly wide of Scott Carson’s near post.

The same man bent an effort over the crossbar after patient build-up play on the left from the hosts, but that aside, Derby’s goal was largely untroubled thanks to a resolute and solid backline.

With that, however, the Rams were conservative and safe when they did hold possession, extinguishing the Bluebirds’ early momentum and quietening the boisterous home backing.

The contest needed something to happen and an injection of quality, but with eight minutes of the first half remaining, Cardiff struck the first blow.

From the far side, Peter Whittingham, a one-time Rams loanee, knocked a deep inswinging corner towards the head of the unmarked Manga, who simply guided the ball into the far corner of the goal.

Wassall’s side needed to show a reaction in the second half and after emerging from their interval, it took them just four minutes to hit back as Martin beat David Marshall to Marcus Olsson’s left wing cross with his head and guided the ball into the unguarded goal.

It would have been short lived had Carson not pulled off a fine save to deny Craig Noone after the wideman had robbed Jason Shackell of possession, leaving him with a clear run on goal.

The 30-year-old goalkeeper was called upon shortly before the hour as he got down low at his near post to turn away Scott Malone’s firm drive from inside the area as Cardiff searched for a way back in front.

Although the contest descended back into a midfield battle, Cardiff continued to look the more likely to add to the scoreline and on 68 minutes, they made their next opportunity count.

The lively Anthony Pilkington forced a corner after seeing a shot from the edge of the box deflect behind for a corner and like the first goal, Derby failed to deliver with Whittingham’s inswinging delivery before O’Keefe planted a loose ball into the far corner of the goal.

That proved to be the last key moment in a hard fought encounter as Derby’s run without a win on the road was stretched to four and saw the Rams’ cushion in the play-offs cut to just two points.

Cardiff City: Marshall, Peltier, Morrison, Manga, Malone, Noone (Lawrence, 90), O’Keefe (Dikgacoi, 88), Ralls, Whittingham, Pilkington (Gunnarsson, 78), Immers

Substitutes not used: Moore, Fabio, Ameobi, Zohore

Derby County: Carson, Hanson, Keogh (C), Shackell, Olsson; Thorne (Russell, 75), Bryson, Butterfield (Blackman, 82); Ince, Johnson, Martin

Substitutes not used: Grant, Christie, Buxton, Bent, Weimann

Attendance: 28,680

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