Cardiff kept up the pressure on Championship leaders Wolves as Joe Ralls’ late penalty secured a 1-0 win at The Riverside.
Ralls drilled home from the spot in the 84th minute after substitute Adama Traore was penalised for a reckless challenge on Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.
The win keeps Cardiff in second place, two points behind Wolves, and saw Neil Warnock’s side bounce back after picking up just one point from their previous two games.
Boro barely tested Bluebirds keeper Neil Etheridge, and the Teessiders have slipped into the bottom half of the table after failing to win any of their last five games.
Boro have struggled in the early stages of a number of their matches this season, and they were on the back foot once again as Cardiff dominated the opening quarter of an hour.
The visitors should have scored in only the fifth minute, but Danny Ward shot tamely at Darren Randolph’s legs after the Boro goalkeeper had seen his attempted clearance charged down by Junior Hoilett.
Ward went close again moments later, shooting narrowly over the crossbar after cutting in from the left-hand side, and the nervousness in the Boro ranks was exemplified by the sight of Daniel Ayala rolling a simple 10-yard pass straight into touch.
Cardiff threatened again midway through the first half with Ward narrowly failing to reach Joe Bennett’s dangerous low cross as he slid into the six-yard box, but Boro improved as the interval approached and gradually began to create chances of their own.
Britt Assombalonga fired over from the corner of the penalty area, before former Cardiff full-back Fabio da Silva also came close with a long-range effort.
Boro twice came within inches of opening the scoring at the start of the second half, with Stewart Downing responsible for both efforts.
Downing watched as a goalbound drive deflected narrowly over the crossbar after flicking off the head of Cardiff defender Sol Bamba, before his curled free-kick from the edge of the area also picked up a deflection as it drifted narrowly wide of the left-hand post.
Bamba was involved at the other end shortly after the hour mark, and the Cardiff centre-half was adamant he had scored after a penalty-box scramble. His prodded effort from Sean Morrison’s square ball was hacked away by Assombalonga, who was standing on the goalline. Cardiff’s players were adamant the ball had crossed the line, but referee Andrew Madley waved play on.
Madley was involved again with seven minutes left, but this time his decision was rather more to the visitors’ liking. Traore flew into a reckless challenge as Mendez-Laing turned in the area, and the referee pointed to the spot. Ralls drilled his spot-kick past Randolph, and Cardiff should have added a second goal in the dying seconds, only for Hoilett to head Mendez-Laing’s cross wide of the target.
Garry Monk felt Boro were unfortunate to lose, but accepts they are in the middle of a difficult spell. Middlesbrough have failed to win any of their last five matches, and find themselves in the bottom half of the table despite having started the season as the favourites for automatic promotion.
Boos rang around the Riverside at the final whistle, but Monk was keen to accentuate the positives even though Cardiff goalkeeper Neil Etheridge was only forced to make one save.
Monk said: “It’s clearly a frustrating period for us. We knew going into the game it wasn’t going to be one with a lot of chances because of the way Cardiff set up, so we knew we were going to have to show patience.
“We were in the ascendency and if anyone was going to win, it looked like us, so it was a really harsh result. But that’s the period we’re in.
“We understand the fans’ frustration, but what’s very clear is that we stick together. It’s easy to lose focus on what the players have done really well, even today there were a lot of good things.
“We’re getting punished for errors, but we know the good things we’re doing will get us through.
“There was a lot of positives in how we controlled the game and forced them back and they settled into that defensive mode.
“We’re very close to getting to that situation where those things go for us. When we do get through this period, you’ll see a lot of positives.”
Neil Warnock admits he is having to recalibrate his ambitions as his Cardiff side continue to fly high in the Championship table.
He said: “We were aiming to be in the top six at the end of October but we’re setting our sights higher now. I’m too long in the tooth to get carried away, though.
“The players gave me everything and I couldn’t have asked for more. The players missed a few chances and left me sweating a bit at the end.
“I should have been sat there with a cigar on at the end, but it wasn’t quite like that.
“I got the response after the defeat last week, but this league is like that. That’s why I love it because you don’t know what’s round the corner.
“You don’t get carried away too much when you have a good run or a bad run. We’ve had a couple of blips, but you’re going to get that.
“We’re a genuine bunch of lads, but you get what you pay for and we are limited in certain areas. I’m proud of their never say die attitude though.”