The 2021/22 season has seen the emergence of several fresh faces as potential candidates for the Player of the Season award. Marc Guehi, Michael Olise, Conor Gallagher, Joachim Andersen have all excellent and although one of them may rightly receive it, one Crystal Palace stalwart continues to thrive in Patrick Vieira’s revolution.
Having been the main source of attack during the reigns of Alan Pardew, Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson, Wilfried Zaha remains the catalyst for all things positive about this new-look Palace side. It is important to note that Zaha has excelled in several seasons during his glittering career at Selhurst Park and despite a handful ineffective matches this campaign, his skill and ingenuity continues to unlock defences as he passes 400 career appearances for Palace.
Just ask his perennial antagonisees Watford, who were stunned into submission by two goals which highlighted the endearing ability of the Ivorian winger in that big recent 4-1 win at Vicarage Road; particularly his second strike which saw him wriggle through oncoming Hornet’s defenders before nestling the ball beyond Ben Foster. This strike was extremely reminiscent of his finish at Carrow Road earlier in the month which epitomised the poise of Zaha as he likewise provided an ample amount of curl on the ball to beat Tim Krul and sent the travelling Eagles fans into raptures.
Of course in the very same match he also quite literally slipped up from the spot in an almost comical sequence of events which undermined his previous brilliance in the same match. And yet, he had the courage to take the next one, firing beyond Jose Sa in Palace's most recent match against Wolves at Molineux; a victory that all but secure's Premier league survival for another season.
This reaction mirrors the steely determination that has defined Zaha over the last few years of his career, having battled against the criticisms of several pundits that seem intent on picking him apart for his lack ambition for not joining a side that is constantly in European positions.
This may appear as a lack of ambition outside of Palace, yet Eagles supporters get the opportunity to acknowledge his drive and purpose every week as he persistently peppers opposition defences with his direct and tricky runs. At least in my mind, Zaha typifies everything that it takes to be a catalyst and a focal point in this blossoming Vieira team, as he now appears tasked with the responsibility of aiding the younger players and using his experience as a way to impose his style on the game.
The emergence of Gallagher and Olise as genuine threats has managed to share the burden and now the Ivorian winger has similarly agile and incisive talents to bounce off. Yet it is important to note that Zaha remains the highest goal scorer with an impressive nine goals, having recently overtaken Gallagher’s haul with that crucial penalty at Wolves.
This tally just adds to Zaha’s longevity as a player, having comfortably amassed the most Premier League goals of anyone at the club with 56, which is 21 more than second placed Christian Benteke. He also boasts the most Premier League appearances at the club with 254 and has enjoyed 82 wins in the competition, more than any other Eagle. In wider terms, Zaha now has 417 overall appearances in all competitions whilst his tally of 76 goals means that he is just eight goals off breaking into the top 10 all-time goal scorers with Andy Johnson the next player in his sights.
These statistics contribute to the fact that it isn’t just this season or the last where Zaha has been the standout star, they tell us that he has been the team's most pivotal asset since his debut campaign in the 2009-10 season, where he replaced Stern John with 10 minutes remaining in a league match against Cardiff on the 27th March 2010, with Palace of course embroiled in administration and a Championship relegation battle.
Zaha’s influence during that period is unrivalled and it is due in large part to his performances that we are now more than financially secure having racked up nine consecutive seasons of Premier League football with another potential trip to Wembley on the horizon. Many say that despite regular hiccups this is the greatest period in the history of Crystal Palace Football Club and it is no surprise that this coincides with the presence of Zaha.
His moments of magic continue to grace Selhurst Park like no other, as that undeniable swell of anticipation still builds when he receives the ball to this day. Memories remain fresh of his brace at the Amex to send Palace to that 2013 Wembley final, we still remember his thunderbolt away to Hull in 2014, or his late equaliser against West Ham in the early Hodgson era, perhaps his dazzling run and superb finish at Huddersfield in 2018.
Although we may remember him for different goals and different moments, Zaha will always be adored at Selhurst park, and it will be a very long time until South London sees a finer player. Amongst endless rumours of his potential departure, our star man has remained loyal to his childhood club, with it now being likely that he will see out his career in SE25. With Jim Cannon’s imperious record of 660 appearances still potentially in sight, we can look forward to several more years of Wilf consolidating his position as the greatest player in the history of Crystal Palace.