Wilfried Zaha was supposed to hit the big time five years ago. At 20 years old, the Crystal Palace striker had already racked up over 100 appearances in the English second tier, and he caught the eye of Manchester United. In 2013, the Red Devils signed him for a reported 10 million pounds.
However, as part of a United team facing an identity crisis after the end of Alex Ferguson’s managerial tenure, Zaha couldn’t catch on. In two seasons under contract, he played in a total of four games, quickly getting loaned back to his boyhood club (which had since earned promotion to the Premier League) before permanently returning to Palace in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Zaha hadn’t crashed—he was still in the Premier League—but he found himself in the company of hundreds of other promising young players that just weren’t quite good enough to find success at the world’s marquee clubs. He had his big opportunity, he had failed, and now he could settle into a career.
In the years since, Zaha has been a very good player by the standards of a team that did just enough to stay in the top flight. But in the beginning of this season, it looked like Crystal Palace’s Premier League run was a near lock to come to an end. Palace lost all but one of their first nine Premier League games, had already replaced new manager Frank de Boer with Roy Hodgson, and sat at the bottom of the table.
This week, however, Crystal Palace finally pulled themselves out of the relegation zone, continuing a seven-match unbeaten streak by beating Watford 2-1 on Tuesday and Leicester 3-0 on Saturday. And more than any other player, Wilfried Zaha is responsible. Here’s his game-winning assist from midweek, made possible by some beautiful ball control and pure determination
Zaha also scored the second goal of the Leicester match, in his team’s first road win of the year. And now, once again, rumors are swirling that the big clubs want to sign him in January. He’s only 25, so Zaha clearly still has plenty to offer at whatever team plays him, but, having already experienced the reality of a club as big as Manchester United, it’s unclear if he would want to try that again. There’s excitement around this Palace squad for the first time in a long time, and with his team on the rise, maybe it’d be more fun to lead that charge than spend more time scrapping to get noticed.