Wilfried Zaha the star turn as he gives Crystal Palace perfect parting gift

 

Wembley

Eventually, after 104 minutes of witty teasing and puckish taunting, Wilfried Zaha drew the foul that won Crystal Palace the game and sent them up.

It was the dream parting gift to the club that developed him, in extra time, on his last appearance for them. The perfect ending to his 11-year spell with Palace, the perfect ending to his afternoon of work too.

All day, he had been mocking the experienced Marco Cassetti, drawing him one way and darting the other, spinning inside and out, dragging him too close, using the ball as bait, before moving it away and winning the foul.

So, for all the drama, it was almost no surprise, when, in the final minute of the first half of extra time, Zaha set up victory. Attacking that inside-left channel with his usual drive, he was yet again too fast and too strong for Cassetti, holding off his challenge with his right arm. Cassetti, desperately stretching his tired legs to clear the ball, could only trip Zaha with his right foot. Kevin Phillips did the rest from the penalty spot.

Cassetti and Watford had been warned. Two minutes before, again out on the left, Zaha had taken perfect control of the ball and moved his body in front of Cassetti, who in trying to reach it had to trip him. That had been the story, though, of the whole afternoon. Some might accuse Zaha of selfishness but his plan was certainly in the best interests of the team: to discomfit Watford's most assured players.

There is no defender in the Championship who has played more top-level football than Cassetti, the Italy international who arrived on loan from Udinese after six seasons at Roma, in which he won two cups and came close to clinching the Serie A title on three occasions. But Zaha set out to make him look like a beginner, teasing and turning him from the start without an iota of deference. His first confrontation with Cassetti, an early act of self-assertion, was an instant 180-degree spin, leaving Cassetti surprised, and Zaha went on to beat Daniel Pudil too.

The first hour, at the very least, was not a classic. But Zaha was by far the best thing about it. It was with confidence, pride and an enthusiasm to fill this stage that Zaha set about the game. There were players on both sides who almost seemed to shy away from the limelight, hoping that they could find somewhere to hide in the shadows or corners of Wembley's vast pitch. But Zaha was not one of them.

Zaha continued to provide a spark and excitement where both were lacking. Halfway through a poor first half, he beat Cassetti again before skipping past the next most talented young man in the Championship, Nathaniel Chalobah. Zaha passed to Aaron Wilbraham but his shot was blocked.

There was renewed determination in the second half, though, Zaha not wanting to end his last day in red and blue as a loser. One heel flick and spin six minutes after the break was gaspingly good, and the pressure on Cassetti started to show. With the ball on the right wing, Zaha showed Cassetti his back, held him off, then spun anti-clockwise into a space Cassetti did not think existed. Not for the last time, the veteran Italian stuck out a leg and conceded a foul.

Wanting to win the game in normal time, Zaha set up a good chance for Stuart O'Keefe, which was fired at Manuel Almunia. Zaha's next victim was Pudil, beating him with a double stepover and shift of the ball from his left foot to right.

But there was no goal in the first 90 minutes, no immediate parting present to the club where Zaha had played since the age of nine. He would be playing in the Premier League next season for Manchester United regardless, but he wanted Crystal Palace to be there too.

The best players can write their own stories and Zaha, while not perfect yet, has the talent to do just that. He knew that Cassetti had a role too, as his unwilling foil. And nearly two hours into the performance, came the dramatic climax, the young man outfoxing the veteran one last time and delivering the ultimate prize. It was the most glorious exit imaginable.

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