Wilfried Zaha may outgrow Palace as ex-Man United ace targets big time
Wilfried Zaha is hot property again. With Crystal Palace languishing in a relegation fight, the young Ivory Coast winger is again being linked with a summer move to Tottenham. While his wish to move to Spurs in the summer was rejected, the scenario this time round could be quite different given the predicament Palace find themselves in.
Zaha will be reminded of the risk that comes with a move to a more ambitious club. The winger's 2013 transfer to Manchester United for £10 million is repeatedly brought up as an example of how young players don't always fit in to the environment of big clubs; how they don't meet expectations or the standards required of them.
When doing so, critics of Zaha rarely take into account the tumultuous circumstances that surrounded his new club at the time. Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager that signed him, retired. David Moyes, the new manager, arrived with new ideas. And Zaha, a young London boy, was thrust into a new city, new club and new management regime. It's fair to say that after a decent preseason with United, he wasn't really given an opportunity to impress by Moyes. Zaha's face didn't fit and he was soon loaned out, then ultimately sold back to Palace.
Zaha is not the player that he was back then. Voted the Player of the Season last year, the former Palace trainee has matured significantly in the last two seasons. He's stronger, faster, more technical and more tactically aware. His end product has improved, as has his general play. While his temperament can sometimes still flare up, it's typically in response to repeated fouling and a lack of protection from referees.
His performances this season have provided rare highlights in otherwise bleak circumstances. He has scored some wonderful goals, with the efforts against Hull City and Swansea City the pick of the bunch. He also has more assists to his name this season than in any previous season.
One area of his game that he doesn't get credit for is his defensive work. Despite providing Palace with a consistent attacking threat, his tracking back and support of his teammates has been outstanding. While Andros Townsend has laboured on the opposite wing since his arrival from Newcastle United, Zaha has excelled.
There is little doubt that Zaha is needed by Crystal Palace and retaining him despite some renewed transfer speculation in January could help Sam Allardyce fight relegation. The question that is now likely to take prominence is just how much Zaha needs Palace.
Should the Eagles avoid relegation, the manager and owners will have to make a strong case to Zaha that staying at the club is in his best interests. He was advised to do this during the summer and the player agreed to stay.
While the last three seasons have shown that regular football will help his development, the winger could be justified in feeling that he's now at the right stage of his development for a move to a club with sights set on Europe rather than a relegation battle or a mid-table finish. He wasn't ready for a move to Manchester United. He is probably be ready for a similar move now.
If the decision is made to sell him, Palace would be right to demand at least £30m for the winger, especially in the current climate of transfer fees. Palace fans wouldn't want to see Zaha move away, but most would appreciate that his growth has exceeded that of the club.
Circumstances can change. If Palace manage to find their way out of the relegation mire then the conversation about Zaha staying at the club could change. It is, however, clear that Tottenham have a strong interest in the winger -- this is likely to be the third transfer window in which he's been linked with a move to the North London side.
Whatever happens with Zaha in the summer, his contribution in the final third of the season will be crucial in determining the club's immediate future. Match-winning performances could drive his value up and perhaps even result in a move to a side consistently challenging for titles.
Robert Sutherland is ESPN FC's Crystal Palace blogger. You can follow him on Twitter @RoDuSu.