Premier League

Zaha faces defining summer after shaking off rough diamond label

 • by Matt Gault
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Wilfried Zaha was at it again on Saturday. The Crystal Palace winger arrived at Turf Moor in menacing, defence-twisting form, lighting up the game with a goal of preposterous audacity, skill and composure.

With Palace already 2-0 up against Burnley, Zaha decided to make a bad afternoon worse for Ben Mee and Charlie Taylor.

Receiving Cheikhou Kouyaté’s pass on the edge of the penalty area, Zaha shimmied inside before driving down the right, prompting Taylor to lose his bearings and bump into Mee as the centre-half went to make a tackle.

Zaha waved goodbye to both as he cut back inside on his left and fired past Tom Heaton.

It was quintessential Zaha; tricky, incisive, deadly. Another emphatic reminder of his immense ability. And it made one wonder whether he will ever make the move to a ‘bigger’ club; a trajectory that, for a long time, seemed a matter of when, not if.

A Selhurst Park stalwart, having broken through as a jet-heeled teenager, it is easy to forget he is still only 26.

His career has followed an interesting path. For many, the first sight of Zaha was against the club he would ultimately join, Manchester United, starring in Palace’s League Cup win over a strange Red Devils side featuring Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf and Darron Gibson.

Zaha, then a fearless 19-year-old, tore into United from the outset. He clearly made an impression, too, signed by Sir Alex Ferguson a little over a year later, in January 2013.

What happened next is well-documented. Loaned straight back to Palace for the remainder of the 2013/14 campaign, Fergie retired by the time Zaha arrived at Old Trafford. Having failed to establish himself under David Moyes, he was loaned to Cardiff City before a return to Palace in August 2014.

He’s been there ever since.

In many ways, Palace is the perfect club for him. After a chastening time in Manchester, which failed to yield a Premier League start, he found salvation at Selhurst. Adored by the fans, he has steadily rebuilt his career to the point at which he is regarded, by many, as the finest player not attached to a top-six club.

However, and perhaps inevitably, rumours are swirling once again over his long-term future. Palace will forever hold a special place in Zaha’s heart, having first joined the club as a skinny 12-year-old back in 2004.

Since then, he has become a club legend and, while there is much to admire about the current landscape at the Eagles – thanks, in no small part, to Roy Hodgson’s stellar stewardship – this summer will likely produce another decision which could shape Zaha’s career.

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Linked with Borussia Dortmund in January, Zaha, unlike emerging Palace starlet Aaron Wan-Bissaka, no longer has time on his side. On course for his best goalscoring season in the top-flight (he needs two to surpass the nine he managed last term), he may find the advances of a top club irresistible this summer.

For most of his career, Zaha has tried to shake his ‘rough diamond’ label, an electrifying but seemingly untameable talent who blew his chance at Old Trafford.

But it’s fair to say he’s done that in Croydon, at least to the degree where it’s easy to imagine him holding down a regular starting berth in a side competing in Europe.

If we compare him to similar players at top-six clubs, for instance, Zaha fares pretty well.

Of those at the current top half-dozen, only Eden Hazard averages more successful take-ons per 90 than the Ivorian’s 3.22. Some would ask: so what? A gifted dribbler, he has invariably featured high in the dribbling charts throughout his career.

Zaha

The difference is the end-product. Unpolished and erratic in his youth, Zaha – while still prone to the odd lapse in decision-making – has recently shown his clinical edge, with five goals in his last five league outings, including late strikes in the win over Leicester City and 1-1 draw with West Ham United.

He has also impressively outperformed his open-play expected goals metric, scoring 1.76 for every expected goal, ranking him second.

The question is; where would he go? Tottenham Hotspur are believed to be long-term admirers while it’s easy to imagine him slotting onto the left wing at a team like Arsenal, Dortmund or even as extra firepower in the Liverpool frontline. On his day, Zaha is unplayable; him lining up alongside two of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino is a frightening prospect.

Should he continue the deadly form he’s shown of late, offers are bound to flood the Palace inbox in the summer window. Leaving south London would be extremely difficult, especially given how his move up north played out last time but, given his current trajectory, it’s something he needs to consider.

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