BY SAM SMITH
Roy Hodgson may publicly dismiss the suggestion that his Crystal Palace side are too reliant on Wilfried Zaha, but the Eagles boss will prove he subscribes to the same theory if the forward starts against West Brom on Sunday.
A positive Covid-19 test and his subsequent 10-day period of self-isolation kept Zaha out of the Eagles’ defeats against Burnley and Newcastle United.
Those results continued a familiar trend. When Zaha is missing, the South Londoners not only fail to win, but they lose very winnable matches.
Since Palace’s 3-2 victory against Sunderland in September 2016, they have played 17 Premier League games without the Ivorian and have been beaten 15 times. A run of 13 consecutive defeats during that period, which came under three different managers, proved Zaha was indispensable.
It was also a reason for the club’s huge valuation of their prized asset. There is no other player in the top-flight whose team’s record when they are absent is comparable.
Each time a teamsheet without Zaha’s name is announced, the chance of a Palace victory decreases.
The mood and expectations of the fanbase are dented, because not only does Zaha’s absence generally lead to defeat, but the Ivory Coast international provides rare excitement in an otherwise conservative set-up.
Hodgson played down the magnitude of Zaha’s absence after Palace were beaten by Newcastle last week. To the 73-year-old, the Eagles’ record without their talisman is a trend for journalists to create a story that he feels is not quite there.
“It’s meat and drink for all those people who claim we are unable to win without Wilfried Zaha as it’s another game and statistic they can point to,” was Hodgson’s assessment after the Eagles conceded two late goals against the Magpies.
And yet if Zaha starts against West Brom, Hodgson will have broken a precedent he set with other Palace players who have needed to self-isolate.
While other players who test positive are being eased back into the team – including club captain Luka Milivojevic and last season’s top scorer Jordan Ayew – Zaha will likely start.
There were exactly four weeks between Milivojevic’s last appearance against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Palace’s game against Newcastle – for which he was suspended but also deemed not fit by Hodgson.
The time between Zaha’s last appearance against Leeds United and Sunday’s visit to West Brom will be just one day more. That he can be thrown straight back into the starting 11, despite the manager having a general rule with other players, points to Zaha’s clear importance. But it also proves that Hodgson is privately more serious about the club’s dismal record without their best player than he publicly appears.
Without Zaha against Burnley and Newcastle, Palace lacked ruthlessness in the final third. Their attacks were slow, their final pass was often misplaced, and their chances were squandered.
That there were no goals in two games against teams deemed to be struggling is disappointing.
While it is lazy to solely pin a defeat on the absence of one player, there were occasions in both games when players in possession seemed lost of ideas without their usual pass to Zaha as an option. So frequently do Palace’s attacks go through their main man that there lacked a clear game plan when he was not there.
Eberechi Eze appeared to take on the responsibility of spearheading advances towards goal but was exposed to the double-marking treatment usually reserved for Zaha. Not quite as experienced at dealing with such situations as his team-mate, Eze was not a big enough influence on either match.
In fairness to Hodgson, the two victories from those 17 matches that Zaha has not played have come on his watch. A 1-0 win against Leicester City and a 2-0 success against soon-relegated Fulham both came at Selhurst Park in 2018-19 – and were feats not achieved since Alan Pardew’s tenure.
But while it seemed the Palace boss may have put the bad record in games without Zaha in the past with those wins, the two recent defeats have returned the topic to the forefront of the discourse.
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