Zaha returns to make mockery of Crystal Palace ‘paradox’

Will Ford

“That’s their paradox,” Bilic said when asked about Wilfried Zaha and Crystal Palace’s attacking line. “They don’t want the ball, so you think they must be solid – but no, their forte is front players. There is so much talent in there. Skill, pace, ideas, freshness, combinations. They’re brilliant. Not only Wilfried, but especially him.”

Especially him is right. Two consecutive defeats before this 5-1 win at the Hawthorns means Crystal Palace have now lost ten of the twelve games Zaha has missed under Roy Hodgson. It took him just seven minutes to make the difference on his return.

The Eagles talisman had already turned a defender inside out and shot just over the bar before his key role in the opening goal. It was less his supreme ball control and more his strength and awareness that allowed him to leave Matheus Pereira in a heap on the edge of the penalty area, as he turned him from a short free-kick, before being handed a big slice of luck as his cross was turned into his own net by Darnell Furlong.

But after another half chance for Zaha, which saw him volley over from a dinked Christian Benteke cross, Palace drifted into that typically frustrating paradoxical game plan Bilic spoke of.

They sat off, ceded possession and West Brom started to build an ascendency that looked set to keep Palace camped in their own half. Furlong was unfortunate not to atone for his defensive error with a goal as his header struck the bar, but then did so through an assist for Conor Gallagher as the Chelsea loanee scored his second in two games. It was a similarly classy finish to his winner against Sheffield United, as he swept Furlong’s pullback into the corner.

But Palace were spared what looked like being a very painful last hour through Pereira’s idiocy. His kick out at Patrick van Aanholt from the floor – in terms of aggressive intent – sat somewhere between Heung-min Son’s tickle on Antonio Rudiger, which saw red, and Harry Maguire’s fertility reducer on Michy Batshuayi, which didn’t. Enough to be sent off or not, it was incredibly daft and cost West Brom the game.

Buoyed by their one-man advantage, Palace started to play the sort of football they really should be trying in less comfortable circumstances. A flurry of chances after half-time preceded a brilliant Zaha strike from the edge of the box to give them the lead. The Ivorian was excellent, particularly in combination with Eze, who is such a joy to watch.

Palace’s third goal – a Benteke stooped header at the near post – involved sharp passing and movement from Van Aanholt and Jeffrey Schlupp, but it was made by Eze, who used that much sought after ability to inject pace into a move from a standing start to beat his man in midfield.

And it was the £20million summer signing’s tight one-two with Benteke that gift-wrapped Zaha’s second of the game and Palace’s fourth. They were having a great time by this point.

Even Zaha’s withdrawal didn’t hamper them. His replacement Michy Batshuayi’s dummy was vital in granting Benteke the room to shimmy and fire in his second goal in a half of football, after three in his previous 52 appearances. It’s the first time Palace have scored five in a top flight away game, ever.

The game only served to legitimise the confusion over their archetypally safe football. Yes, they had a man extra and West Brom were very poor when they went down to ten men, but there’s no reason – with the skill and combination play of their forward players – why this more exciting, progressive style can’t be used more frequently than what was proved on Sunday to be the paradoxical norm.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter