Crystal Palace finally got their first goals and points on the board after a great victory at home against Premier League champions Chelsea. Every Palace player did well, but their standout performer was the returning Wilfried Zaha. The attacker had been missing since the opening weekend, but his return injected life into the team and they looked a more potent outfit.
Roy Hodgson surprised the Palace faithful when the team-sheet listed Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend as strikers, but it was a good decision from the manager. Their mobility and movement caused problems for the Chelsea defence, as they were being dragged all over the place. It was important that the Eagles found a way to set-up without Christian Benteke and this innovation from their new manager found instant success.
The 24-year-old is still young, but he is emerging as the main man in this Crystal Palace team. He scored the second goal to restore the home side’s lead and it will go down as the first goal scored by a Palace player this season, due to the first strike being recorded as a Cesar Azpilicueta own goal. It was a great finish and showed that Zaha was capable of playing in a central position.
In fact, he can be even more threatening in central areas, as he can run directly at the centre-backs with the option of changing to move in either direction. His movement can be limited at times on the wing, but he has freedom in the centre and the early signs are that he will thrive as a result. Zaha is one of the best dribblers in the league and that was evident on Saturday as he completed six during the match.
The Ivory Coast international is always willing to take the game to the opposition defence and prepared to step up in pressure situations. It was difficult to return to a Palace side that was rooted to the bottom of the table without a goal, but he is now ready to be the central figure at Selhurst Park and that shows a maturity on his part. It won’t be easy for the side to fight off relegation after a terrible start. Zaha gives them hope.
Is he now fulfilling his potential?
There have been a lot of good players come through at Crystal Palace during the last ten years, with Victor Moses and Nathaniel Clyne now both playing for clubs in the top-six. However, it was long thought that Zaha could be the best player that the club have ever produced and at the age of 24, there is still time for him to reach the level that everyone thought was possible.
As a teenager, he broke into the Palace first-team and wowed supporters with his pace and trickery on the wings. He became a first-team regular during the 2010-11 season and played over 40 Championship matches for three successive campaigns. There were rough edges to his game, with the main criticism centring on his lack of defensive contribution. However, it was difficult to deny his raw potential and there was enough about him to convince Manchester United to sign him in January 2013 before being loaned back to South London.
Sir Alex Ferguson believed that Zaha had potential and that he would ‘enjoy coming to the club’. This was at the time that the deal was announced, but the legendary manager retired before the winger arrived and many believe that had a negative effect on his career. The Scottish manager was excellent at developing young players and his retirement led to a period of uncertainty at Old Trafford. This wasn’t beneficiary for a young player coming into the club and timing was the key reason for his failure to succeed at Manchester United.
During his time at the club, he only made two Premier League appearances that totalled a meagre 28 minutes. It was unusual for Manchester United to sign a young player and not give him an opportunity, but the upheaval caused by the retirement of Ferguson meant that he was considered a huge risk. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal both decided to play it safe, which led to Zaha’s departure. The following quotes reported by the Mirror show that he doesn’t have fond memories of his time there.
“Yes at times I was depressed. I felt a lot of things. When I don’t play well nobody needs to say anything to me. I beat myself up. It stresses me out if I mess it up.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t play well, but that he wasn’t given the opportunity to play at all. There will always be a lot of questions regarding Zaha’s career and what direction it would have taken if Ferguson had remained for at least one more season. Ian Holloway told Sky Sports that he believes the winger would have become the ‘next Cristiano Ronaldo’ under the guidance of the former United manager.
“If Sir Alex Ferguson hadn’t retired, then Wilfried Zaha could’ve been the next Cristiano Ronaldo. I honestly believe that.”
The claim from a man that once managed Zaha is outlandish, but it underlines how highly rated the attacker was at the time of signing for Manchester United. The club must have seen world-class potential to part with £15 million for a player with no top-flight experience and it is a shame that he wasn’t given a real chance to thrive in Manchester.
However, United’s loss has been Crystal Palace’s gain. It has taken him some time to get over the failure at Old Trafford, but he has been superb during the last 12 months and is playing the best football of his career. Last season, he contributed seven goals and nine assists, in what was his best Premier League season to date. He had a goal involvement every 189.1 minutes. Considering he was playing in a team fighting relegation, that is an excellent record.
In addition to his attacking contributions, Zaha recorded eight yellow cards in the Premier League. Although that may appear a bad thing, it shows his determination to do well and willingness to contribute out of possession. The short period working under Sam Allardyce would have done wonders for this part of his game.
Crystal Palace are facing another season fighting for their lives at the bottom of the division, but their star player continues to develop and he still has time to reach the top of the English game. There were links with Tottenham during the summer and that would be a move that would make sense for him, as he would get the chance to work with Mauricio Pochettino.
Zaha is now ready to take that next step, but his loyalty to Palace means that he will want to help them stay up before considering another transfer away. If he continues to perform like he did against Chelsea, there is every chance that the Eagles could complete a miraculous escape.