Sir Alex Ferguson may have retired, but on Monday night he once more proved himself a good judge of a footballer when his final signing, Wilfried Zaha scored the two goals that took Crystal palace into the Championship play-off final against Watford at Wembley on May 27.
Ferguson paid Palace £15 million for Zaha in January before loaning the winger back to the South London club, and will no doubt have permitted himself a smile as Zaha's two late strikes not only ensured that his farewell game for Palace will be in the fixture termed the most valuable in football, worth an estimated £120 million to the winners, but also ended the season of their fiercest rivals.
“I've played for Palace for ten years so this is the perfect way to cap it,” Zaha, 20, said. “I just wanted to finish one of my last games for the club in a strong way and getting two goals is a dream."
Ian Holloway, the Palace manager, will manage in the play-off final for the third time in four seasons. He led Blackpool to the Premier League with victory over Cardiff City in 2010 but he and the Tangerines came up short against West Ham last season. Now he tries a third time with Palace despite a run of one win from eleven games before last night.
“We learned so much from that terrible run we had,” Holloway said. “We've come to the hardest place ever and have shown all sorts of strength of character. Did I doubt my lads? No, I didn't. Did I doubt myself? No. Other people did. [Zaha] will be a match winner at the top, top, top level but I thought he wanted to keep playing well for us, and he did today. ”
Gustavo Poyet, the Brighton manager, who is always linked with every vacant Premier League management job, was downcast and suggested that he will be seeking assurances from Tony Bloom, the Brighton owner, about the level of ambition at the Amex Stadium after failing to take the team up to the top flight despite what he agreed had been 'a fantastic season'.
He said: “I don't like this feeling. I always said that I'll be at the football club while we keep improving. But today it feels like we've hit the roof. I want us to get better, and as a manager I want to get better. Right now, I don't know. I'm under contract, but we'll see.”
Palace pressed Brighton relentlessly, seldom allowing them to play their normal controlled passing game. Even so, the home side made chances, but Julian Speroni pushed aside a shot from Will Buckley and Danny Gabbidon deflected David Lopez' curling shot over his own crossbar. Palace also looked dangerous on the break and should have scored two minutes after half time when Zaha sent Jonathan Williams in on goal only for the Welshman to slip his shot wide.
Palace nearly paid dearly when Brighton's 64th-minute substitute Ashley Barnes twice went close. But Speroni deflected his left-foot shot onto the crossbar, then Dean Moxey nodded his close-range header off the goalline and within seconds Palace made the breakthrough. After 68 minutes Zaha dived to head in Yannick Bolasie's left-wing cross and two minutes from time he took Kagisho Dikgacoi's pass, turned Brighton captain Gordon Greer and lashed the ball in off the crossbar.
“We were technically poor, we made too many mistakes,” Poyet said. “The adrenalin made us play a bit quickly, trying to do everything in two minutes and not play our normal game. But if Ash's shot goes in we are talking about a different game. Those are the margins.”
Brighton & Hove Albion (4-1-2-3): Kuszczak; Calderon (LuaLua, 72), Greer, Upson, Bridge; Bridcutt; Lopez, Hammond; Buckley, Ulloa, Orlandi (Barnes, 64). Substitutes not used Brezovan, El-Abd, Crofts, Dicker, Painter
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Speroni; Ward, Delaney, Gabbidon, Moxey; Dikgacoi, Jedinak; Williams (Bolasie, 62), Garvan (Moritz, 62), Zaha (O’Keefe, 90); Wilbraham Substitutes not used Price, Richards, Phillips, Ramage,
Referee M Clattenburg (Co Durham).