James Scowcroft: Wilfried Zaha is ready to step straight into Manchester United's first team
England winger has grown to become very close to the finished article since he lit up Old Trafford 13 months ago in League Cup
I'll never forget the day, walking off the Crystal Palace training ground in Beckenham, having witnessed Victor Moses embarrass senior players in training.
It wasn't the first time the 17-year-old had done it, but Victor's laid-back approach and attitude at the time, years before he made it to Chelsea, was holding him back from hitting the heights his team-mates, coaches and manager wanted him to reach. One of the great aspects of watching a young player arrive on the scene is the total uncertainty about whether the individual you see playing at 15 will make it or not.
"Vic will either be playing on Hackney Marshes or the Champions League in 10 years' time," I said to one of the youth coaches, Adam Sells, as we left the pitch. "No," he replied. "It will definitely be Champions League. But wait until you see the lad coming through who's even better. He's two years younger than Victor. He's called Wilfried Zaha. His potential's staggering."
Potential. The big word for any young player coming through. Will they? Won't they? How far could they go? Well, on Tuesday night Zaha gave a 45-minute performance against a very experienced Premier League back four at Stoke that told us his rise through the ranks is about more than just potential. It told us why Manchester United and Arsenal are so interested in him.
The performance has so far gone virtually under the radar, partly due to Ian Holloway's amazing, classic post-match outburst about someone's suggestion he'd dived. It took Zaha five or 10 minutes to get into that FA Cup third-round replay, but the big change happened when Holloway switched him from the right wing to the left. The move allowed Zaha to play in his favourite position: to pick the ball up deep and start running at the Premier League's third meanest defence.
Zaha has wonderful ball manipulation skills, especially his ability to swap the ball from either foot, in a blink of an eye, while keeping perfect balance. This allows him to go past players at will, in the tightest of spaces. I've watched him very closely over the past 18 months and the experience he's gathered playing in a very competitive Championship – in front of crowds of up to 30,000 – has proved invaluable.
It's better than being watched by a handful of people in the new under-21 league, at a non-league ground. He's now clocked up more than 100 senior first-team appearances, making the step up to the next level easier for him when it happens. He's ready to step straight into United's first team.
The last time Zaha played against Premier League opposition it was at Old Trafford, against United in last season's Carling Cup quarter-final, and he gave Rafael da Silva a difficult time. But he's actually a very different player from the one we saw in December 2011 and he's come a long way since then. Back then, he was still at the stage where he wasn't always able to make the right decision about when to use his ability to manipulate the ball at speed and take his man on – and when to look for the other options which a team-mate might provide.
That's the ability he has developed in the past 13 months. It's a big comparison to make, but he's not too dissimilar to the way Cristiano Ronaldo started out at Old Trafford. Ronaldo had to learn quickly, about when to have the awareness not to take his opponent on but to release the ball, when defenders doubled up on him.
At the Britannia, we saw Zaha's wonderful knack of running at defenders, slowing them down, getting them on the back foot, then bursting past them at pace. He earned one penalty in the first half, but could easily have been three as he slipped like an eel. His second penalty appeal earned Zaha the yellow card that so incensed Holloway.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis reacted by man-marking Zaha – something that is now common every week in the Championship. But in the confines of Beckenham, Holloway has been preparing the 20-year-old for this. He's been having him man-marked in training every day.
Zaha didn't appear for the second half at Stoke – Palace have bigger fish to fry as they try to reach the promised land of the Premier League. They currently sit fourth in the Championship, two points off automatic promotion. While every player does have a price, the club would be crazy to sell him now, in such a strong position. There will be some soul-searching going on.
Palace poser: To sell or push for promotion
Crystal Palace's quandary about whether to sell Wilfried Zaha and jeopardise their promotion prospects has intensified because the only bid, from Manchester United, is £5m plus £5m add-ons, a figure well short of the £12m asking price.
Though Arsène Wenger said today that Arsenal "are looking at him", he said they had not yet made a bid. The lack of other suitors for the 20-year-old has limited the price Palace can command – a worry for a club which must balance the potential income with supporters' expectations of a promotion push. "I don't know if Manchester United are in for him," Wenger said. "Anyway, if you call any club for any player, they will tell you Man United, Milan, Real Madrid are in for him."
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