That was great fun at Selhurst Park, but more so for one Arsenal target than another. If any game was going to make their minds up, this was it.
After an enticing midweek of action, seemingly decisive at the top and bottom of the table, we’re faced with a Premier League weekend without a great deal for us to get our teeth into, and Crystal Palace vs West Ham didn’t appear to be an early offering to get the juices flowing. With 37 and 34 points respectively before kick-off, on the face of it this was a game between two not very good Premier League teams now unlikely to be drawn into a relegation battle. It was great fun.
Neutrals, in the main, will likely have busied themselves with other things, but Arsenal fans, now looking to the transfer window to build on a fantastic but ultimately disappointing season (probably), had a couple of horses in this race with no riders.
Like David Moyes and Manchester United, Declan Rice appears to be The Chosen One for Mikel Arteta’s midfield, while Arsenal are also thought to be among the clubs interested in offering free agent Wilfried Zaha a late foray into Champions League fooball.
The move for Rice makes perfect sense. With Granit Xhaka set to be the first casualty of Arteta’s evolution, the Spaniard is said to be particularly attracted to Rice’s ‘capacity for suddenly surging forward’. Add to that the England international’s ability to spot and plug gaps, his work in transition both defensively and offensively, and his experience at a tender age, and it’s easy to see why he’s deemed the ideal man by Arteta.
A move for Zaha, although a little out of left field (excuse the pun) given the age profile of most of the additions made under Arteta, also has merit given his undoubted quality, and the lack of transfer outlay required given his contract is up in the summer.
But this game at Selhurst Park, played in flip-flops between one team that can’t defend set pieces and another that can’t defend at all, was confirmation if we needed it that Rice definitely should leave West Ham for Arsenal and Zaha definitely shouldn’t leave Crystal Palace.
The quality gap between Rice and his midfield partner Tomas Soucek in open play is about as stark as any pairing in the Premier League. While Rice wins the ball back and drives forward to create chances for his own team, Soucek is given the ball, drives backwards and creates chances for the opposition, as was the case as Jeffrey Schlupp nicked the ball from Soucek for Palace’s third in a brilliantly bonkers first half.
From corners, Soucek was an absolute menace. He scored one and set another one up before half-time, before he did the exact same thing in the second half, with Palace entirely baffled – as though it was cheating – by the big Czech flicking the ball on at the near post.
The comparative inferiority of Rice’s teammates to Rice himself was also on show for Palace’s first goal, as Kurt Zouma gave Jordan Ayew far too much space to make a run in behind and shoot low past Lukasz Fabianski, and their second, with Emerson Palmieri rashly dashing out of defence to leave Michael Olise unchallenged to cross for Zaha.
“He’s back with a bang” was the line on commentary as Zaha rather scuffed his one-touch finish into corner on his return to action after four games out. But it wasn’t the goal itself but his celebration – as he jumped and punched the air with delight – and the fans’ reaction to that moment, as well as the intense anticipation emanating from the stands every time the captain had the ball at his feet on a sun-strewn Selhurst Park pitch, that makes you wonder why he would ever want to leave the place.
What’s the best Zaha could hope for if he moves to one of the Champions League sides vying for his signature? A few appearances from the bench? He’s not going to be the main man – that ship has sailed. Reports suggest he’s been offered a massive contract to stay at Palace, where he’s as loved as any Premier League player could hope to be.
Rice gave West Ham the chance to rise to his level this season, and they’ve failed him. He’s outgrown them. But just as Rice would be mad not to leave for Arsenal, Zaha would be mad to take them up on the bit-part role he would be given over his starring one at Palace, where he can continue to bask in the unconditional love of his adoring fans.