James Lawton: Zaha the brightest star on a night for young contenders


It was supposed to be the night when Ravel Morrison, Manchester United's teenager of ravishing talent and rambunctious nature, made an announcement to the football nation.

He was to say that a somewhat turbulent youth which recently drew a lecture on discipline from, of all people, Wayne Rooney, was about to enter the foothills of high achievement.

Unfortunately for Manchester United's peace of mind, there were rival claimants for a place in the sunlit uplands of the future – and quite a number were wearing the shirts of Crystal Palace.

Before Morrison came on in the second half trailing his fine precocious talent and volatile nature, another teenager had already announced himself on this big stage.

Like Morrison, Palace's Wilfried Zaha (above) brought plenty of glowing notices to his biggest challenge thus far and soon enough you could see that every line of them bore considerable substance. The birthplace of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, is plainly not the only thing he shares with Didier Drogba. Another is that wonderfully innate ability to terrify a defence.

United's Brazilian defender Fabio will certainly never forget him. Long before the United player received a yellow card, Zaha had run him to the point of distraction. Darron Gibson was also fortunate to get away with a craftily placed leg when Zaha burst into the box shortly after Fabio had been obliged to drag him down on the edge of the box.

Throughout the first half Zaha was quite the best thing in the match, quick, strong, skilful on the ball and with the keenest of eyes for dangerous empty space.

Palace, who also benefited from some brave and dangerous running from Sean Scannell, were thus able to make a serious challenge to Sir Alex Ferguson's presumption that he could field a team of largely ring-rusty fringe first teamers and coast in the semi-finals. That idea came under the most sustained pressure – then an extraordinary explosion.

Darren Ambrose's 40-yard drive gave United's Ben Amos not a glimmer of hope and for a little while after the 65th-minute convulsion Palace's young manager Dougie Freedman had every reason to be exhilarated by both the ability and the fighting instincts of a young team still stranded in the wrong half of the Championship. This, though, was a performance from a higher rung and if you doubted this you had to look at the United manager's face. He had been planning some routine season strategy, which included joining Liverpool and Manchester City in the semi-finals, and when you looked at a line-up that included Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Dimitar Berbatov he could hardly have been accused of over-reaching.

What he couldn't have quite calculated, however, was the quality of Palace's play – and the strength of their ambition.

If Zaha was the pick of the Palace for much of the time, he did nothing to overshadow the consistent excellence of another highly promising young player, 20-year-old Nathaniel Clyne. The South London-born defender, a member of the England Under-21 team, had moments of beautiful control and judgement.

All of this promised huge celebrations in the capital until Federico Macheda arrived. He went into the Palace box with impressive conviction and when he won a penalty he was equally composed. His easy conversation fulfilled some of the essential promise of a night involving a major club in the later stages of the Carling Cup. Above all, it has developed into a showcase for the best and the hungriest of the Premier League's young contenders.

Ferguson was supposed to release a near battalion of them before he elected to send in older troops in need of some serious action entering a pivotal stage of the season.

Given the fury of Palace's young lions, it might have been a policy that owed too much to the head and perhaps too little to the heart. That certainly was an inviting conclusion when Glenn Murray restored Palace's lead. It was another example of what can happen when a young team is given its head.