They took a pretty roundabout way of getting there, but Cardiff City are heading to Wembley to challenge for the Carling Cup. Facing a 1-0 deficit inflicted upon them by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, Cardiff dominated the second leg of their semifinal, equalising very quickly and then inflicting what by all rights should have been a thrashing. It, however, was no such thing - miracle after miracle saved Julian Speroni's goal after it was breached in the seventh minute via the unfortunate head of Palace defender Anthony Gardner, and the visitors were able to take the match all the way to and through extra time while fighting an amazing rearguard action. Ultimately, it took penalties to settle the score, and it was the Bluebirds who advanced, scoring three out of their four spot kicks while Crystal Palace finally crumbled.
There was no hint of the drama that was to come when the match began. Cardiff were, as usual, composed in possession and able to dominate play, and it didn't take long before the hosts were able to burst down the right flank via Don Cowie, whose cross was sent straight into the danger area right in front of the goalkeeper. Gardner, who had scored at the correct end of the pitch in the reverse fixture, attempted to head clear but only succeeded in diverting the ball past Speroni and into the back of the net. The game was just seven minutes out.
Palace came into the game a little bit following the goal - they were forced to push up and actually contest play, but for all of their hard work and the (occasionally wayward) trickery of Wilfred Zaha on the left, they were getting precious little penetration into Cardiff's box, and Tom Heaton was never particularly troubled. The hosts were hardly a spent force during this time. Their counterattacking play was sublime, with most of their best work going through the captain, Peter Whittingham, and they might realistically have hoped to have gone 2-0 up when Kenny Miller sent a superb effort just wide of the far post in the 40th minute.
Cardiff came even closer to scoring their second in first half injury time when Miller slammed a left-footed shot against Speroni's post, and for all of Crystal Palace's industry they could well have been staring at a three-goal deficit by the time the interval rolled around. The second half saw the home side turn the screw as Palace were slowly choked out of the game despite a bright opening, but Cardiff - given chance after chance to put the game to bed - still couldn't score.
Matters were helped (at least from the hosts' perspective!) when Palace defence Patrick McCarthy was sent off by Howard Webb for a second bookable offence with ten minutes of injury time remaining, but Cardiff couldn't exploit their numerical advantage fast enough to avoid extra time, Zaha getting back brilliantly to block what looked like a certain goal by Cowie with just seconds left on the clock. Crystal Palace had done just enough to keep the tie level through 180 minutes - now they just needed to survive another 30 and play penalty roulette.
Cardiff, of course, had no intention of going to penalties and threw body after body forward in a desperate attempt to break the hex on the Palace goal. Substitutes Rudy Gestede and Filip Kiss combined well in the second half of extra time only to see the latter's effort clip the top of the bar, and then the impressive Aron Gunnarsson contrived to miss a free header from a corner in the 120th minute, smacking it straight against the woodwork with Speroni well beaten.
Webb's whistle blew and it looked like the home players had already lost. All Crystal Palace wanted to do was to make it this far - it doesn't matter who's better at football or has more players when you take turns trying to score from 12 yards. Cardiff should have already had the game wrapped up, and yet here they were, faced with the impossible pressure of penalty kicks.
The stories were already being written when Kenny Miller blasted the hosts' first attempt into low earth orbit. Crystal Palace, the narrative would say, rode their luck and defended spectacularly to earn a spot at Wembley. What brilliant defending! What courage in the face of impossible odds! What tosh! Tom Heaton would interject, first stopping Jermaine Easter and then - after Craig Conway slotted home - Sean Scannell.
Suddenly it was Cardiff with a 1-0 advantage after four penalties and after Gastede made it 2-0 the pressure was on Palace to come up with a trick that Heaton couldn't counter. It took a fantastic shot by Mile Jedinak to do it - the Australian sent a bullet into the bottom corner that Heaton nearly stopped anyway - but a lifeline was there for the visitors, should they care to take it.
Up stepped the implacable Whittingham. A miss would more or less even things out, but a goal would dump that pressure right back onto Palace. The midfield general, so instrumental throughout the 120 minutes of open play, made no mistake, and suddenly Jonathan Parr found himself needing to score for the visitors to have any hope whatsoever of making it to the final.
The ball floated wide of Heaton's right post, and Cardiff had made it through.