By Ed Aarons
It didn’t take long for Wilfried Zaha to make his mark at Crystal Palace. Less than 20 minutes into his full debut against Leicester City on the opening day of the 2010-11 season, the spindly 17-year-old, born in Ivory Coast’s capital city of Abidjan, scored his first goal at Selhurst Park as Palace went on to win 3-2.
Two years and more than 90 appearances in the Championship later, Zaha is being touted as the hottest property outside the Premier League, with Manchester City and Liverpool leading the chase for his signature. as Goal.com exclusively revealed on Tuesday.
Sensational displays in the space of just a few days against Wolves and Burnley yielded four goals, a call-up to the England Under-21s squad and a whole host of new admirers.
Always blessed with the ability to beat players at will, which has inspired the chant “He’s just too good for you” among the Palace faithful, a summer spent bulking up in the gym seems to have added a cutting edge to Zaha’s trickery.
Manager Dougie Freedman continues to use his star player on the right or left flank in a 4-2-3-1 formation but recognises that he could eventually be most effective in a more central role.
“That’s been thought of but he’s not quite got his movement right,” Freedman – a former Palace striker himself – told Goal.com before Zaha’s double against Burnley in a 4-3 win.
“Wilfried’s best when he looks somebody in the eyes and the guy starts crying. I think eventually he could be just off the front man but I think the other side of his game is better at the moment. He’s had about 100 games to grow and I would say another 50 or 60 and he can start understanding how to play a different position.”
Already nearly halfway to last season’s total of nine goals that won him the Football League’s Young Player of the Year award, Zaha is clearly making rapid progress under Freedman’s tutelage. But with the Premier League vultures circling, Palace’s resolve to keep the latest talent off their south London production line will be severely tested in January.
Chelsea new boy Victor Moses – like Zaha, born in Africa but schooled in Croydon – was sold to Wigan for a cut-price £2.5 million a couple of months before Palace’s latest darling made his debut as a substitute against Cardiff City in March 2010.
With the club mired in administration, owner Simon Jordan was forced to let Moses leave – but things are very different these days.
Chairman Steve Parish secured Zaha on a new five-and-a-half-year deal last December designed to ward off any suitors and that shrewd bit of business means Palace would not accept any less than at least €12.5m for a player who turns 20 in November. What’s more, it seems that he is happy to continue developing at the club he joined at the age of 15 – especially after Sunderland’s Adam Johnson advised any young English players against moving to City due to a lack of first-team opportunities.
Part of a family of nine brothers who moved to London when he was just a child, Zaha is also extremely close to his family in Mitcham and admitted last month that he suffered from homesickness while he was away with the England Under-21s. But, having been schooled at the famous Asec Mimosas academy in Abidjan that has produced such luminaries as Yaya Toure and Gervinho after being established in the 1990s by lawyer Roger Ouegnin, he could have another major choice to make.
Ivory Coast officials are believed to have made enquiries about whether Zaha would be interested in representing the country of his birth at January’s Africa Cup of Nations, with Fifa rules allowing players to switch allegiance even if they have represented another nation at junior level.
England have already let Moses slip through the net to Nigeria but this is one African pearl whom Roy Hodgson should be desperate to keep.
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