Heart Of Football

Football: Prized eagle Zaha may take flight when transfer window opens

It says everything about the English Premier League wealth gap that Manchester City travel to Crystal Palace just one win way from equalling the all-time record of 19 consecutive victories in top European football.

Palace are fighting to stay in the league, and a very spirited fight it is too. The club south of London had made the worst start in EPL history-seven games, seven defeats, neither a point nor even a goal to their name.

Put another way, if you lined up every single Palace player and offered them to Pep Guardiola maybe only one - Wilfried Zaha - would tempt him to buy.

Zaha can be thrillingly athletic, fast, daring and mercurial. But he would need to be at the top of his form even to get minutes, never mind games, should Guardiola decide to rest one of his wingers, Leroy Sane or Raheem Sterling.

The January transfer window opens tomorrow. Four days ago, the papers were full of speculation that Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and, yes, even City, were lining up bids for Zaha to add to their stock.

Roy Hodgson, the veteran Palace manager, seemed to give succour to those stories when he said that Zaha is the last player he wanted to lose, but that "speculation is what it is".

Having slept on it, having seen Zaha lift the Eagles to another daring rally against Arsenal on Thursday night, Hodgson sang a different tune. The Palace board, led by American investors, have decided there is no way that Zaha will leave in January.

Fine. Let's see what the 31 days of the window bring. Let's hope, for the sake of 24,000 die-hard Palace fans that both the player and the club can resist all temptation no matter how many noughts there are on the transfer package or the wage packet.

Consider the potential bidders. What if Alexis Sanchez gets his wish and leaves Arsenal at the earliest opportunity?

What if Chelsea or Tottenham make their money talk, maybe by putting it on the table the dollars that the Palace shareholders understand?

What if Sane or Sterling turn an ankle on Palace's Selhurst Park today? No-one doubts that City, having been outbid by Liverpool for the seriously good but incredibly overpriced £75 million (S$135 million) defender Virgil van Dijk, offer a sheikh's ransom for a gifted player like Zaha who is not cup-tied in Champions League terms.

This is the chasm. The two clubs, City and Paris Saint-Germain, are able to throw any amount of Middle Eastern money to get who they want, when they want them.


Wilfried Zaha (behind) celebrating with Andros Townsend after the latter scored Crystal Palace's first goal against Arsenal on Thursday. The Gunners, however, won the English Premier League clash 3-2. PHOTO: REUTERS

Zaha has some proven loyalty to the Eagles. He was four when his family left the Ivory Coast and found refuge in the London Borough of Croydon. His pace and his trickery caught the eye of local scouts even before he left Whitehorse Manor Junior School.

By 12, he was training at the Crystal Palace academy. By 17, he made his debut on the wing of the first team. Manchester United made Palace an offer they could not refuse in the January window of 2013 (though the £10-15 million seems chicken feed compared to today's sums).

Alex Ferguson signed him for the future, and loaned him straight back to Palace for the remainder of that season. By the time Zaha went up to Old Trafford, Sir Alex had retired. The constant switching of successive managers did Zaha no favours and, after further loans to Cardiff and again to Palace, he was returned to Selhurst Park, for little more than half the price United paid.

On paper, Palace look to be out of their league. City have beaten them 14 times in 15 meetings, and thrashed them 5-0 in the last two. Just don't tell Hodgson the maths. Don't try to persuade Zaha that he is not the lightning rod for another great escape.

That is how this big league works. The richest pluck more than they need or can field from the minnows, and leave the rejects to go and mend their careers and their confidence where they can.

The good news is that Zaha, Palace's prized eaglet, is flying again. He's much a man now, at 25 in mid-life as a professional player.

Zaha missed the start to this season with a knee injury. In that time, Palace abandoned the gamble of trying to make the team change style and play the way that Frank de Boer wanted.

De Boer, with no previous experience of English football, tried to impose Dutch culture on Palace's hard core of lung-bursting, industrious players. The Dutchman was paid off after just four games and Hodgson, the most travelled of English managers, came in to try to put confidence and cohesion back into the team.

Hodgson had one stroke of fortune. Zaha was ready, willing and able to come back and lift the team off the floor.

Remarkably, Hodgson, who began life 70 years ago in the Borough of Croydon, was able to come home and steer the club out of the hole they dug for themselves.

Until Arsenal pricked the bubble three nights ago, Palace had put together an eight-game unbeaten run and lifted themselves out of the relegation places.

It remains a hard long haul, and games against Arsenal and City in such a short time would test any team in the land.

Yet how often do you hear that England has the best - at any rate the most competitive league on Earth?

Guardiola says, week in, week out, that is as tough as any he has known. Yet his City are on the brink of emulating his Bayern Munich side that, in 2013-14, won 19 games on the spin.

On paper, Palace look to be out of their league. City have beaten them 14 times in 15 meetings, and thrashed them 5-0 in the last two.

Just don't tell Hodgson the maths. Don't try to persuade Zaha that he is not the lightning rod for another great escape.

Why, maybe it is time big Christian Benteke made some long overdue repayment on the inflated fee Palace paid hoping for goals.

Just because City wiped their boots on the last 18 opponents does not make the result a forgone conclusion.

If, indeed, you think that way, why not switch off the screen and see in the New Year instead?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Prized eagle Zaha may take flight when transfer window opens'. Print Edition | Subscribe