BY SAM SMITH
Wilfried Zaha arrived at the back post, kept his knee over the ball and stroked his volley into the bottom corner beyond Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy.
It was a display of confidence the Crystal Palace forward has previously lacked in the last 12 months. To move into a scoring position and to finish clinically and with authority were two traits absent from Zaha’s repertoire last term.
In fairness, he rarely received this service from the likes of Andros Townsend, whose cross was begging to be slammed home. Ultimately, the solitary goal in an otherwise tight game was a match-winning moment from Zaha. From a player of his quality, that did not happen enough last season.
There were other moments from the 27-year-old which, although they do not prove he is back to his best, suggest he is well on the way to returning to his usual high standards. There was some nice link-up play with Townsend, Jordan Ayew and, once the new signing came on for his debut, Ebere Eze. Late on, there was a driving run on goal and a clinical finish with which he was unfortunate to be ruled offside by VAR.
There was a general maturity about Zaha’s performance, which was sometimes not the case last season. He closed down, tackled and harried. He often held up the ball to bring others into play. He did not engage in the simmering rivalry he has with the Southampton captain James Ward-Prowse, who has previously been responsible for inciting the Ivorian into being sent off.
Once Eze and Michy Batshuayi are fit to start games, they will join Zaha to create what should be an exciting attacking trio.
The former Queens Park Rangers midfielder played the final 10 minutes against the Saints and impressed. A shimmy to drift away from Kyle Walker-Peters, who was so dizzied by the skill that he ended up on the floor, was a highlight of Eze’s cameo.
Batshuayi was an unused substitute but Palace are already aware of the Belgian’s quality given his previous loan spell. Both will likely start the EFL Cup tie against AFC Bournemouth.
Providing Roy Hodgson continues with the 4-4-2 which has been used throughout pre-season and also for the victory against the Saints, Zaha, Eze and Batshuayi will not form an obvious three-man attack. Eze will likely start on the left and drift inside to link with the front two, just as he did in the friendly win over Charlton Athletic and also in his brief appearance on Saturday.
Batshuayi will play alongside Zaha, who will be afforded a freer role to pick his target along the opposition back line and exploit them. Against Southampton that tended to be Jack Stephens, the right-side centre-back who was often left one-versus-one with Zaha due to Walker-Peters being caught too high up the pitch.
Those new signings, and the possible of addition of a few more before the transfer window closes, offers Hodgson some much-needed strength in depth. The Palace boss now has at least five players who can play up front, and various options out wide.
Given previous troubles with a smaller, weaker squad, Hodgson will have viewed being able to name a substitutes’ bench of Batshuayi, Eze, Max Meyer and Luka Milivojevic as a luxury. Adding quality around Zaha will only improve his performances.
Perhaps a quieter transfer window for Zaha, in which he has not been as highly sought-after as the previous summer, has allowed him to better focus on his football. Palace’s stance remains the same – they expect a significant fee if Zaha is to depart. That is unlikely to happen this summer.
And, ultimately, that is good news for the Eagles. Should he maintain the level of performance produced in the game against Southampton, and with better players around him than last season, he should have a vastly improved campaign.
Wilfried Zaha. Provided a constant threat and could have had more goals than his early strike, which was the match-winner.
Vicente Guaita made an excellent save to deny Danny Ings in the second half, darting to his right to powerfully beat away the striker’s effort to keep Palace ahead.
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