WHEN the Championship season got under way back in August, Middlesbrough and Cardiff were both hotly tipped to win promotion to the Premier League, but almost halfway through the two sides could barely be in more contrasting positions.
Dave Jones' side are flying high in second place where many expected them to be while Boro have been floating around the bottom of the Championship and have already seen a managerial change.
With 14 places separating the sides prior to kick-off, Boro needed a game-plan and a good one at that to hold off Cardiff 's array of attacking quality.
In truth, Boro's performances this season have been mystifying, winning games where they were poor and losing games which they clearly should have won.
In danger of going bottom of the table if they lost, Boro needed a winning combination of performance and result, and that's exactly what they got.
Julio Arca's 40th minute penalty was enough to see off the Bluebirds and not only lift Boro out the bottom three but give the manager, players and fans the huge boost they have needed for some time.
Ahead of the game, Mowbray admitted the pressure was beginning to get to his under-fire players and a win over Cardiff would be the perfect way to lift confidence.
The boss also knew his side needed a masterful game plan if they were going to stop a Cardiff City side boasting arguably the best player in the Championship Craig Bellamy.
Despite having a few chances in the second half, including rattling the bar with a thunderous strike, Boro's backline did a superb job of frustrating the Welshman.
Most notable was the performance of 22-year-old Seb Hines, who deputised for the suspended David Wheater and delivered an inspired display to limit Bellamy and Co to few chances.
Afterwards, Mowbray praised his players for the way they stuck to their game plan, especially after being unable to train outdoors for two weeks due to the recent bad weather.
The players put in an amazing shift of 90 minutes and I am delighted, Mowbray said.
I don't think we've always got what we deserved in recent weeks but we put a shift in this time and got the three points.
Cardiff are a quality side and with their extra man in midfield and their pace going forward we had to work very hard and we did. We never wavered, especially in the last 20 minutes when they piled on the pressure. Everyone did their jobs.
We showed a lot of respect to Cardiff, they're a quality football team and their league position reflects that. It was a real hard shift against a good football team.
I thought we were always a threat and I'm very proud of the team and the work ethic they showed. They stuck very much to the game plan.
Cardiff have some fabulous footballers and any team with Craig Bellamy in it is always going to have speed and a potent threat but we dealt well with that.
I've studied them this week and whatever people might think about Bellamy, he's a fantastic footballer and has great speed with and without the ball.
We needed to try to nullify that so it was not a day for trying to press them. The crowd here like to see Boro going after teams and smashing into tackles but it was never a day for that. We let their centrebacks have the ball but we looked a threat when we had possession.
We've got to put faith and trust in the players. We were apprehensive about Bellamy so we spoke about him.
We didn't want to get hit on the counter-attack, we wanted to let them have the ball and let them try to pass their way through ten men.
When you consider we've not been able to train on grass for two weeks, I think the players deserve great credit for sticking to the game plan.
We had to work on the game plan on pieces of paper and a smart board, so it was a great effort from everybody.
The first half saw the teams cancel each other out, both enjoying spells of possession but failing to create any clearcut chances, although if anyone looked likely to get the breakthrough, it was definitely the home side.
The decisive moment came shortly before half-time when Emnes was bundled over by Gabor Gyepes in the area and, despite slight hesitation from referee Anthony Bates, a spot kick was awarded.
Boro had been in the very same position last weekend against Coventry when Leroy Lita saw his penalty saved and the rebound crash off the bar, but with Lita missing through illness, Arca took responsibility and neatly tucked the ball into the right corner despite not scoring a league goal in three years.
What was pleasing about Boro's performance was their ability to hold on to a slender lead against a good attacking side, something they might not have done a few weeks ago.
In truth, the visitors were poor but that shouldn't take anything away from a Boro side lacking confidence and belief, who carved out a welldeserved three points.
Mowbray admitted his players were feeling the heat but insisted he wasn't getting worried and still believes his side possess enough quality to start climbing the table.
I haven't been stressed about being in the bottom three, Mowbray said.
We have to win enough games and I won't get up and down about it.
I think we have enough in the team to dominate the ball and create chances. People see Boro in the bottom three and the red lights are flashing, but I see a team that are trying to do what we are asking.
There are some fine margins in football but I see a team doing what we're asking of them. We showed great togetherness and drive, all the things people might be questioning about this team.
Match facts Goals
1-0: Arca (40, cool finish from the spot after Emnes had been fouled.) Bookings: Gyepes (39, foul), Chopra (81, unsporting behaviour), Arca (68, foul), Bennett (82, unsporting behaviour), Bailey (90, foul)
Referee: Anthony Bates (Stoke) Average dispay but spot on with decision to award Boro's penalty. 6
CARDIFF CITY (4-5-1):
Marshall 5, McNaughton 5, Gyepes 4, Hudson 4, Naylor 4, Burke 5, WHITTINGHAM 6, Olofinjara 5, Drinkwater 4 (Chopra 50 4), Keogh 5, Bellamy 6.
Subs (not used): Santiago (gk), Riggott, Blake, Matthews, McPhail, Rae.
6 Steele: Had a quiet game but made an excellent fingertip save to deny McNaughton
7 Hoyte: Defended well and caused problems going forward
8 Bates: Led the side well and made some crucial blocks
8 HINES: After so long out, did exceptionally well to cope with the threat of Bellamy
7 Bennett: Apart from a few lapses in concentration, steady performance from the youngster
7 Arca: Scored the winning goal and caused problems with his crossing
6 Bailey: Looks more comfortable in the middle, although his passing let him down at times
7 Thomson: Seems to have put his injury problems behind him with a tidy performance
8 O'Neil: Pulled the strings in midfield and unlucky not to score
6 McDonald: Looks short of confidence and should have scored but made some good runs
7 Emnes: Won the penalty and his physical threat proved too much for Cardiff's defence
Subs (not used): Coyne (gk), McMahon, Tavares, Williams, Robson, Kink, Boyd.
MAN OF THE MATCH
SEB Hines despite a lack of games he looked very comfortable.
Deserves a run in the team after that performance.