At least Wilfried Zaha still has a sense of humour. Asked by a Twitter user whether he should consider purchasing the Crystal Palace forward for his Fantasy Football Team a few days after the transfer window had closed, Zaha responded with one word: “No.”
Having made no secret of his desire to leave Selhurst Park at the end of last season, the Ivory Coast forward knows what comes next as he prepares for the visit of Palace’s bitter rivals Brighton on Sunday. In what must feel a bit like groundhog day, Zaha will now face the usual questions over his commitment to the club he first joined at the age of 12 and where he has become such an important figure.
“Here we go with the usual nonsense Zzz boring now,” was his response to criticism from Tony Cascarino on TalkSport that he was “totally disinterested” in the 4-0 defeat to Chelsea before the international break. Yet after the failure to engineer a move away from Palace despite engaging the super-agent Pini Zahavi, Zaha must be wondering if his opportunity will ever come.
Zahavi’s contract with the player who turns 28 next month expired at the end of the transfer window and neither party has shown interest in renewing; Zaha is understood to be in talks with two other agencies about switching for the third time in 18 months. But given his advancing years and that Palace have stuck rigidly to their valuation, whoever takes him on faces a mammoth task in a market that has been severely hit by the economic downturn caused by Covid-19.
After Everton’s early interest in Zaha went cold, the opportunity to make an unlikely return to Manchester United seven years after he became Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing was as close as Zahavi came to finding a solution in this window. Given that United retain a 25% sell-on fee from when they sold Zaha back to Palace in 2015, Ed Woodward is believed to have been keen to re-sign him to add attacking reinforcements to his squad after being frustrated in the attempt to sign Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund.
However, Ole Gunnar Solskjær is understood to have rejected the chance to sign a player with whom he worked at Cardiff while Zaha was on loan in south Wales. Whether Zaha himself would have considered returning to the club where he failed to make a single Premier League start amid lurid and inaccurate rumours about his private life is another matter entirely.
His performance last month in the victory over United – Palace’s second successive win at Old Trafford – was a timely reminder of his vast ability, even if it didn’t quite have the desired effect in terms of securing a transfer. But having been largely peripheral in the loss to Chelsea before the international break, touching the ball just twice in the opposition’s penalty area, he has the perfect platform to dispel the doubt over his commitment against opponents who have provided some of the best moments of his career.
After earning the penalty that helped Ivory Coast end Belgium’s 12-match winning streak last week, Zaha missed the defeat against Japan a few days later because of an injury scare, but Roy Hodgson is hopeful that he will feature against Brighton after a scan showed no signs of a tear in his groin.
“He’s been very mature about it all,” Palace’s former England manager said when asked how Zaha has reacted to his situation. “I enjoy my relationship with him and so do the players – we are conscious of the fact that when he is really on his game he is a very, very difficult player to handle and if we are going to have a good season, we are going to need him playing at that level. There’s only so much you can do to get into people’s heads but so far I can’t say one critical thing about him. He’s been very good in training and in matches.”
With almost three years left on his contract worth an estimated £130,000 a week, perhaps Zaha has realised the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.