The 25 Best Players in the Championship - as voted for by you: Part 14 of 25
Drawing Manchester United in the quarter-finals of the League Cup must have seemed like a great opportunity to Crystal Palace’s young side. This opportunity was not necessarily to impress United’s management or any other watching scouts, but merely to prove themselves on a bigger stage and continue their development. One young man in particular thrived under the spotlight, says Paul Binning.
Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
Great players arrive into the consciousness in different ways. The easiest to remember are those where a certain match or moment make it impossible to forget; the likes of Wayne Rooney’s debut goal against Arsenal (“Remember the name…”), which announced a 16-year-old to the Premier League in the most spectacular of fashions.
Glenn Murray, with the winner, and Darren Ambrose, with that stunning 35-yard strike, may have stolen the headlines, but in years to come many fans across the country may come to recall Crystal Palace’s improbable Carling Cup quarter-final win at Manchester United as the moment Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha ‘arrived’.
From the first whistle, ‘Wilf’ Zaha simply terrorised United’s backline who, while weakened, all have significant Premier League and Champions League experience. Running directly at high pace, twisting and turning the likes of Fabio and Jonny Evans seemingly at will, Zaha laid a marker for what could lie ahead.
Although born in the Ivory Coast, Zaha has represented England at under-19 level and is still a teenager. It is surely just a matter of time before he is selected by Stuart Pearce for the under-21’s.
For fans of those Championship clubs who have already suffered at the hands of Zaha and Palace during what has perhaps been a surprisingly bright start to the season from the Eagles, the Old Trafford performance would not have been such a bolt from the blue. Zaha’s trickery on the right wing has been at the forefront of many of their victories this term and last year’s young player of the season seems to be adding more end product to his game, with five goals supplementing an ever-improving rate of assists and chances created for the likes of Murray.
Palace fanatic Martin Searle identifies performances against Coventry, rivals Brighton and league leaders Southampton as particularly noteworthy. For 45 minutes against Bristol City, Zaha made left-back Ryan McGivern look like he was giving a particularly bad audition for Dancing on Ice. There was even a quiet sense of anticipation amongst the opposition supporters each time Zaha got the ball as the realisation dawned of just what they might be witnessing. For reasons still best known only to himself, manager Dougie Freedman switched him from right to left for much of the second half and the fluidity was disturbed, but he’d already shown enough to prove his was a talent worth keeping more than half an eye on.
Martin added his thoughts on the skill Zaha possesses: “Wilf has wonderful trickery, particularly his now-trademark move where he plays the ball onto the inside lower leg of his other leg, giving himself a wall pass to change direction back to the original and leave the defender floundering. One of these won the free kick for Murray’s winner in Manchester. His other trademark, however, is the wildly exaggerated step-over.”
It is Zaha’s touch and ball control that really stands out. Step-overs, flicks and tricks are all great for the cameras and Palace supporters will worship him for them. Sometimes he will undoubtedly over-do the fancy football, but when he gets it right it’s virtually impossible to defend against.
This sort of showboating can bring adulation but can also rile opposition defenders. Under-21 manager Pearce would have had his own way of dealing with the likes of a right winger such as Zaha during his playing days, but attack-minded players are substantially more protected in the modern game and this gives skilful wingers more freedom to perform as they’d like.
So what next for the talented Ivorian? Martin warns that Zaha needs to avoid a familiar trap. “Other recent academy graduates have believed their own publicity, thought they’d made it and stopped working hard”, he says. In Freedman, Palace seem to have a manager set on instilling his side with a strong team ethic and it would appear unlikely Zaha will be allowed to get ahead of himself.
Of course, there is often a key decision in the career of a gifted young player. Unless they happen to already be at a top club, there will come a moment when judgement has to be made between the riches the switch to a bigger pond can offer and continuing to hone their ability and experience by staying with the club they know and love.
While Palace’s latest batch of highly talented youngsters are yet to reach the levels of their 1990’s predecessors, few would currently wager against ‘Wilf’ following in their footsteps over the next decade.
Who else did you vote as one of the 25 best players in the Championship? Read about the rest so far here.