Wilfried Zaha had nothing to prove to anyone this week, not least the likes of Danny Mills, who claimed the winger had “taken the easy option” by choosing to represent Ivory Coast, the country of his birth. But the Palace winger took on Chelsea with the air of a man on a mission, and his performance was certainly not that of a player who, as Mills suggested, lacked “fight”.
If that was the case, there is no way Sam Allardyce would have given the 24-year-old the responsibility he appears to be enjoying in this Palace team which is edging up the table, even if the relegation battle remains far from won. With this surprise win, Allardyce became the first manager to beat Chelsea in the Premier League with four different teams, but the headlines belong to the boy from Abidjan.
At the home of the champions-elect – prior to kick-off at least – Zaha drove at the hosts at every opportunity, running at the heart of the Chelsea back three from a central position that offers so many more possibilities than the wide role in which he has grown up and perhaps too often previously frustrated in.
Both Palace goals came as a result of Zaha’s positivity, with the visitors showing impressive resilience to recover from Cesc Fabregas’s fifth-minute opener. Under Alan Pardew, that might have been the cue for surrender, but Big Sam’s Eagles are now made of sterner stuff.
The equaliser, only four minutes later, was more typical of a top class frontman rather than the showboating winger many had Zaha down as. Close to his strike partner, Zaha collected Benteke’s short pass on his chest with his back to goal before fending off Cesar Azpilicueta biting at his heels and Nemanja Matic prowling ahead of him. Still, Marcos Alonso and Gary Cahill blocked his route to goal but Zaha backed in and wriggled into enough space to drive the ball through all of them and past Thibaut Courtois into the far corner.
Benteke will take much of the credit for Palace’s second, and rightly so after showing the kind of composure and finish we had forgotten he is capable of. But Zaha deserves praise for the speed at which he took on Gary Cahill over almost three-quarters of the length of the pitch, and for running on the outside of Benteke to open up the central channel for his strike partner. The ball arrived at Zaha’s feet somewhat fortuitously but once it did, he laid it on a plate for the big Belgian to put Courtois on the deck before dinking home splendidly.
His contribution to Palace’s goals takes his record this season to six goals and seven assists – comfortably his most productive of five active campaigns in the top flight. And, given the form he is in and the prominence he is granted by Allardyce, it would take a brave man to bet against Zaha reaching double figures in at least one of those categories.
Come the summer, Zaha will likely have another decision over his allegiance. Tottenham’s interest is only likely to intensify given the attacker’s splendid form of late, but so too could Palace’s resolve to keep their academy graduate. Of course, he has already had one crack at the big time, but whereas Manchester United signed raw potential in 2013 and failed to nurture it, Zaha has proved he is ready to make the step up. His affinity for his boyhood club will present the attacker with a dilemma, though whatever choice Zaha makes, it won’t be the easy option.