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Until October 1, Crystal Palace remained rooted to the bottom of the Premier League standings with seven consecutive losses having scored no goal and conceded 17; relegation was then a certainty rather than a possibility.
Wilfried Zaha, who returned from a knee injury against Chelsea on October 14, however, changed the mood around Selhurst Park almost single-handedly, as he scored the winner in the 2-1 defeat of the defending champions to win the club’s first points.
Collecting 22 points in 15 games since his return, the Eagles have leapfrogged to 14th, with a top-half finish now a possibility. However, not so long ago was the 25-year-old winger labelled as a failure.
In light of his reducing most Championship defenders he’d gone up against to wrecks in his 126 league games for Palace, Alex Ferguson made him, who was then a 20-year-old ambitious and skilful winger, his final signee at Manchester United.
“I’d never look at someone and think he’s better than me, unless it’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. When I get on the pitch it’s my time,” said an uber-confident teenager, while talking to The Guardian, two months before his transfer went through. His morale, however, took a hit despite moving to arguably the biggest club in England.
The English media accused Zaha of having a bad attitude and “being the vainest man in football”, while internet rumour-mongers murmured that his sleeping with his then-gaffer David Moyes’ daughter was why he consistently watched United play from the stands.
After playing a grand total of 166 minutes across three competitions for the mighty United and a demoralizing loan move to Cardiff City, Palace’s prodigal son returned home, two years after leaving the London club. He hasn’t looked back.
Becoming an automatic starter four months into his return, Zaha went on to usurp Dwight Gayle, Yannick Bolasie and Christian Benteke for the club’s Player of the Year award for the next two seasons. Being consistently fantastic has, unsurprisingly, caught the attention of four of the big six clubs, reportedly.
Many credible reports suggested that they were keen on securing his services in the January transfer window, but the Africa-born winger, after a heroic winning streak-ending performance against Manchester City, ruled out the prospect of leaving the club midway through the season.
With Palace now on a roll thanks to his outstanding form, there’s no reason for the club to even ponder entertaining bids for their talisman, and manager Roy Hodgson, who’d handed him his two England caps, recently said, “People who make offers for Wilfried Zaha are basically wasting their time.”
However, he and chairman Steve Parish ought to know that the clubs who’ve shown interest in signing Zaha will definitely ring them over the summer again. Should the player go on to complete a hat-trick of POTY awards, he will surely get the feeling that he’s outgrown his boyhood club and rightfully so.
He roughly a year ago gave up on his aspirations to represent England to play for Ivory Coast, the country of his birth.
“When I stopped playing for England, I had a four-year gap where I was not picked, no matter what I did,” he said, reflecting upon what he claimed was a well-thought-out decision. “I thought I wasn’t good enough. Ivory Coast want me and are promising me a place in the team, so why would I turn them down? It’s feeling loved. The way they approached me and the conversations we had [showed] they really want me.”
Although he couldn’t guide the African heavyweights to the FIFA World Cup 2018 finals, his decision has felt right thus far, with his earning eight caps in the last calendar year, in the African Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.
Although Zaha hasn’t admitted it, he’s surely made a sacrifice of a moderate size by switching allegiances.
If electing to abandon England hopes and regretting leaving Palace as a wunderkind weren’t difficult enough, he’d find himself at crossroads again, later this year. He’ll find himself torn between playing alongside world-class talents and being an adored central figure at a club that perennially fights for Premier League survival.
Being a family-centric individual, Zaha likely won’t want to give up on the comfort of being with his family at his London home but, luckily, he has the big-six London clubs haggling for his signature, besides runaway champions Manchester City.
Tottenham Hotspur tried signing him last year and are said to still be keen on his services. Chelsea will also try to lure him to west London after seeing their winter-transfer-window advances turned down by his club. Plus, Arsenal have allegedly earmarked him as a potential Alexis Sanchez replacement.
Playing alongside Yohan Cabaye and Andros Townsend should be exciting, but as he’s shown over the past three years, he deserves a shot at hanging with the Eden Hazards, Harry Kanes and Alexandre Lacazettes of football.
At each of the above-mentioned clubs, however, he’ll certainly come under so much scrutiny that he’ll always be under one failed dribble, let alone a miss away from becoming the worst English player to ever lace the boots. However, a player of such calibre shouldn’t squander his best years at a club whose average league finish is 12.5 over four seasons in the top flight.
As former teammate Rio Ferdinand recently pointed out, his failed United move came at the wrong time. Zaha shall rekindle his dreams of playing for a title-contending Champions League club while he still can.
Written by Praveen Paramasivam
Follow Praveen on Twitter @PraveenR_P
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