Wilfried Zaha finally has the Crystal Palace team he deserves
Crystal Palace are different this season
Every summer since 2015, Crystal Palace fans have had the same conversation with rivals fans about the future of Wilfried Zaha. That conversation goes something like this: 'Surely he's off this summer, eh? Too good for you lot, isn't he? Where will he go? Spurs? Arsenal? £70 million, you having a laugh?'
But every summer, he stayed. One should not delude themselves into thinking this is out of pure loyalty to the cause; he repeatedly made clear his ambitions to play in Europe rather than just about survive every season. But nevertheless, he remained at Palace, knuckled down, and earned his status as the club's greatest ever player. And now, that discussion about a potential move has gone very quiet.
Of course, age plays a factor. At 29, he no longer represents great value for one of the country's biggest clubs in the long term. But there is also the feeling that Zaha is finally content in SE25. He appears to have accepted the fact that he has missed his window for that big move, and embraced his role as Mr Crystal Palace, because - finally - he has the team around him he deserves.
'This shows what direction the club are going in'
Wholesale changes were implemented across the entire club in the summer of 2021. Roy Hodgson, after four years in charge, departed a crowd grateful for his service but craving change. Nine senior players, including Andros Townsend, Patrick van Aanholt and Gary Cahill, left on free transfers. The majority of the media, understandably, tipped them for relegation. This would be too much change, too fast.
But some shrewd recruitment led by sporting director, former manager and club legend Dougie Freedman, saw Palace ride the rocky waves of uncertainty all the way to an FA Cup semi-final. The arrivals of Joachim Andersen and Marc Guehi have rejuvenated the defence. Michael Olise arrived from Reading for an £8m fee which increasingly looks like the steal of the century. Conor Gallagher's energy in midfield has completely transformed the way Palace are able to play, especially against 'superior' opposition.
And most crucially, the appointment of Patrick Vieira has worked out better than anyone had envisaged. The former Arsenal captain was not the club's first, second or even third choice, given the disappointing end to his spell at OGC Nice. But his more positive tactical approach, humility and delicate man management has breathed life into a team that was previously treading water.
Don't just take it from me, take it from the players.
Speaking to ITV after helping to secure Palace's place in the FA Cup semi-finals, Zaha said of the progress made under Vieira:
"Obviously it's crazy it is the first year the team have played together, but you can see the progress already.
"I think over time when the team gels together more there is even more to come. This shows what direction the club are going in. The players we have brought in, how we play, it just shows what we have got for the future so the club is going in a good direction."
"The energy he has is unreal"
Perhaps the most telling example of Vieira's influence and Zaha's rediscovered sense of joy is the WhatsApp message the Ivorian sent to his Palace teammates after their 4-0 thrashing of Everton in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
As reported by The Athletic, it was Zaha who took it upon himself to send a message not only celebrating the club's first trip to Wembley since 2016, but reminding his teammates to be grateful to have Vieira taking them there.
One can also look at how Zaha talks about his teammates. After Palace's 2-0 win over Manchester City back in October, the forward heaped praise on goalscorer Gallagher for his tireless efforts going forward and in defence.
"The energy he has is unreal," he said.
"It helps so much having someone who gets back and helps us going forward as well. Having him up there and linking up with him is amazing, it helps quite a bit."
Read between the lines and it is clear to see how relieved Zaha is to have more support in attack, having shouldered most of the creative burden for years in a team playing - let's face it - turgid football.
And watching his performances, it is clear that Zaha is relishing this liberation and sense of responsibility. He does not often wear the armband but is a leader on the pitch, and has equalled his most prolific top flight season ever, with 12 goals. Another one at Wembley this Sunday would be a fitting reward for everything he has given the club.
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