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Is Wilfried Zaha now fulfilling his undoubted potential at Crystal Palace?

Jake Jackman

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Zaha

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.

Jake is a student based in the South East. He is a Newcastle fan and has a keen interest in Dutch football. Jake can be found on Twitter here - @jakejackmann.

Crystal Palace

Can Crystal Palace cope without the injured Wilfried Zaha?

With Wilfried Zaha out of action for the foreseeable future, Crystal Palace run the serious risk of relegation from the Premier League, writes Jake Jackman.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Reuters

Crystal Palace have been dealt a major blow in their battle against relegation as Wilfried Zaha has been ruled out for roughly a month with a knee injury.

The fleet-footed winger suffered the knock during the team’s home draw against Newcastle United and although he remained on the pitch, the damage was done.

In last week’s press conference, Roy Hodgson spoke about his star player and the quotes were reported by Sky Sports:

“It’s amazing Wilf was able to play so much of the game with the injury,”

“He’s a very quick healer and we’ll be working to get him back as soon as possible. He won’t play versus Everton though.

“If he recovered in a week or two it would be a fantastic effort, but it’s more realistic we’d have to wait a month for him. It’s not certain. He’ll be pushing the medical staff to come back as soon as possible.”

The player himself will want to return at the earliest opportunity as he was in great form and reaching the level that many expected him to reach when he was a teenager.

He is now the most important player for Crystal Palace, but his injury must be managed carefully as the side can’t afford to lose him for a longer period of time if he is rushed back.

In hindsight, it does look like a poor decision to keep him on the pitch against Newcastle, as he likely aggravated the problem during the match.

Despite their excellent form since the appointment of Hodgson, Palace remain deeply ingrained in the relegation battle due to their appalling start to the season.

At the time of writing, they are currently in 14th position and three points above the drop zone.

That doesn’t sound like a big gap, but as there are three teams between them and 18th position, they are in a good position to remain in the Premier League.

However, if their performances get worse in the absence of Zaha, they will be in real danger of falling down the table.

How important is Zaha?

It has become a sweeping generalisation to talk of Zaha as the most important player in this Palace team.

The winger is exciting to watch and is often the player that the team look towards for inspiration in the final third.

When he is playing well, he is difficult to stop and his dynamism often creates lots of chances for the side.

Crystal Palace have only lost five of the 20 matches that Zaha has featured in this season and three of those defeats came against top-six teams.

The Ivory Coast international suffered an injury during the opening match of the season and missed two months of action.

During this time, Palace failed to earn a single point or score a single goal in the Premier League.

For any person doubting the importance of the winger, that statistic is eye-opening.

His return came against current champions Chelsea and it was evident that him being named in the team lifted the rest of the players.

They were a rejuvenated side and delivered an excellent performance to secure their first points of the campaign.

Zaha was at the heart of everything that was good about the South London outfit and he scored the winner on the day.

In addition to his goal, the 25-year-old completed six dribbles and made two key passes.

Ordinarily players need time to catch up to speed, but he immediately found his stride and it was important that he did, as Palace were being cut adrift at the bottom of the division.

Since then, Palace have showed the form of a top-eight team and lost on only six occasions in all competitions.

The Eagles have tasted defeat 14 times this season and nine of those have now come when Zaha has been absent.

There is no doubting how vital he is to the team and that begs an interesting question: how will they cope without him over the coming month?

How can they cope without Zaha?

Although Palace have one of the stronger squads outside of the top-six, they have several other players injured and it is tough to see a natural replacement for Zaha.

Bakary Sako, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jason Puncheon are all creative players, but all of them are injured.

In addition to them, Hodgson also has to deal with the absences of Scott Dann, Martin Kelly, Julian Speroni and Jeffrey Schlupp.

That leaves them bare across the pitch.

Andros Townsend is going to be the player that the team need to step up and take on more responsibility, but he is very inconsistent.

The England international has scored only one goal this Premier League season.

That said, he has five assists and it could be his creativity that helps cover for the loss of Zaha.

The only other wide option is Lee Chung-yong, but he has played only three times in the league this season. It would be a tough ask for him to replace Zaha.

It could be that a change of system is required to facilitate for the loss of Zaha and a formation with two strikers could be the answer.

Alexander Sørloth signed on deadline day and is seen as a powerful striker capable of transitioning quickly to English football due to his physicality.

A potential partnership with Christian Benteke could be frightening for opposition defences.

The next month will shape Crystal Palace’s season. They need to prove to themselves that they can win matches without Zaha, but recent evidence suggests they will struggle.

Their next four matches see them face Everton, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea.

There is a real chance they lose ground in the battle to stay up and without their best player, it looks even bleaker for them.

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Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace 1-1 Newcastle United: Three talking points from Selhurst Park

Jake Jackman

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Newcastle

Crystal Palace and Newcastle United played out a draw at Selhurst Park, but that didn’t do much to ease the relegation fears of both clubs. The home side have now lost only two of their last 15 Premier League matches, which underlines their improvement under Roy Hodgson. Meanwhile, Rafa Benitez will be encouraged by his side’s recent form, as they have lost just two of their last eight matches in the league, both of which came against Manchester City. Although neither set of supporters will be delighted by the result, the match showed that both sides are difficult to beat and that is a positive. Here are three talking points from the match:

Wilfried Zaha has found the consistency to match his talent

The winger has been fantastic to watch this season and there are few better in the Premier League at running with the ball. At times, it looks impossible to dispossess him as he weaves past six or seven challenges to create a chance for his team. Zaha completed three dribbles and made three key passes, which made him one of the most effective players in the final third on Sunday. He came close to scoring at one point, but his effort curled over the bar.

It was evident that Zaha was the player that the Newcastle defence feared and he consistently caused them problems down Palace’s right-hand side. Hodgson has got the best out of him in the final third, but his defensive work rate has been equally as impressive. He completed one tackle and one interception during the match. At the beginning of the second half, he burst a lung getting back to prevent a promising opening for Newcastle by intercepting a ball into Ayoze Perez. Under past managers, the 25-year-old wouldn’t have done that. The appointment of Hodgson may be looked back on as an important moment in the development of the Ivory Coast international.

Kenedy looks to be a great signing for Newcastle

This Newcastle United team has a lot of work rate and the players fight for the shirt, but they have looked short on quality up to this point. Rafa Benitez was vocal during the summer as he continually stated he needed more players, but he never once criticised those already at the club. It was important in January that they added some quality and Kenedy looks to be a great addition. He played his part in the first goal with another dangerous corner delivery.

Every time that he gets the ball, he looks dangerous and during his time on the pitch, he completed two dribbles and finished the game with an 86% pass success rate. That shows his quality and he is a player that Newcastle can look to for inspiration. His end product needs work, as he missed a good chance in the first half and dallied on the ball just after the break when he should have played in Ayoze Perez for a one-on-one chance. If he can continue to impress and improve in the final third, he could play a vital part in keeping the club in the top-flight.

The relegation fight will go down to the wire

It is becoming a common theme that matches such as these are becoming must not lose, rather than must win. Both managers appeared relatively pleased with a point after the match, but either side could have won it. Newcastle were excellent for the first half, but they chose to move to a more defensive style after the break. If they continued to commit bodies forward and pressed Palace high up the pitch when the score was 1-0, they would have had a great chance to increase their lead.

However, Palace’s recent run of form shows they are difficult to beat and that showed on Sunday. That said, they could have been more positive once they had the equaliser. They had new signing Alexander Sørloth on the bench, but they didn’t bring him on. He would have added another physical presence in the final third and could have caused chaos next to Christian Benteke. There are only seven points separating the bottom ten clubs and it is shaping up to be the most exciting relegation battles in recent seasons. Both of these teams will be hoping to climb clear over the coming weeks, but this point did little to stabilise their position.

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Arsenal

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace: Three talking points from the Emirates

Rob Meech

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Arsenal
Photo: Reuters

A barnstorming first-half performance against Crystal Palace saw Arsenal record their first victory of 2018. Nacho Monreal, Alex Iwobi, Laurent Koscielny and Alexandre Lacazette all scored in the opening 22 minutes to stun Crystal Palace. Arsenal could not add to their tally as the visitors stemmed the bleeding and replied with a late consolation through Luka Milivojevic.

This was a much-needed victory for Arsenal, whose ambitions of qualifying for the Champions League have taken a blow in recent weeks. Palace meanwhile, have been in impressive form since Roy Hodgson took charge, but this defeat has checked their progress. Here are three talking points from the Emirates…

Mesut Ozil steps up in Alexis Sanchez’s absence

With Alexis Sanchez’s move to Manchester United rumoured to be nearing completion, this was a chance for Arsenal supporters to see how the team might shape up without him. Sanchez was excluded from the side that lost to Bournemouth last weekend, but his absence was hardly felt here.

That might have had something to do with the return of Mesut Ozil from injury. The Germany international was influential throughout, particularly in partnership with the rejuvenated Jack Wilshere. Ozil is sometimes accused of drifting in and out of games against top-quality opposition, but when he is given licence to express himself without defensive responsibility, there are few better players to watch in the Premier League.

Although he failed to get on the scoresheet, Ozil showed Gunners fans that there can be life after Sanchez. It should not be forgotten that Ozil is another Arsenal player in the final six months of his contract. Tying him down to a new deal must be a priority for the club.

A reality check for lacklustre Palace

After losing their first seven Premier League matches – without scoring a goal in the process – relegation seemed nailed on for Palace. The appointment of Hodgson was largely derided, but the former England boss has had a remarkable impact in a relatively short space of time at Selhurst Park.

Survival is by no means guaranteed, but such has been their upturn in form that it is hard to imagine the Eagles being sucked back into trouble. It says a lot about their progress that many thought an upset might have been on the cards. Palace, however, were left shell-shocked after Arsenal’s four-goal burst.

When the Gunners click, they can be irresistible. Palace fans need not be too alarmed, even if their defending was lax. In fact, they should be heartened that their players did not capitulate in the second period, with the game effectively over. Although Milivojevic’s goal was too, little too late, it was just reward for a much-improved second-half performance.

Lacazette issues a timely reminder 

With a 3-0 advantage after just 13 minutes, Arsenal were in cruise control. But it was Lacazette’s goal, rounding off a superb team move to make it 4-0, that would have provided the biggest cheer. After hitting the ground running following his big-money transfer from Lyon last summer, the 26-year-old had endured a goal drought that stretched all the way back to December 2.

With questions being asked about his form, amid speculation that Arsenal are set to launch a raid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, this was a timely reminder that Lacazette has plenty to offer. His overall record of nine Premier League goals from 24 appearances is more than respectable for a newcomer to the English game.

Lacazette will hope that his goal against Palace can be the catalyst for another scoring run. Without Sanchez, the burden rests more heavily on the France international and if a move for Aubameyang does not materialise, he will have a big part to play in Arsenal’s push for the top four.

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