Crystal Palace vs Sunderland: Wilfried Zaha finally shows pre-Manchester United form, despite disappointing defeat

COMMENT: Crystal Palace 1 Sunderland 3

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The Independent Football

Wilfried Zaha was Crystal Palace’s leading light as Neil Warnock’s 10 men fell to defeat at Selhurst Park on Monday night.

It was inconceivable to think 18 months ago, as Zaha traipsed off the Selhurst Park pitch for a final time bound for the bright lights of Old Trafford, that he would return so soon, and more surprisingly still: he'd return a bit-part player.

Having headlined the club's charge to the Premier League in 2012-13, his August homecoming was met with great anticipation by Palace fans, who were unaware United were returning damaged goods.

Confidence shot following a season on the bench under David Moyes, and subsequent snub from Louis van Gaal, Zaha has struggled for form since his second coming in south London.

And prior to the Black Cats trip to south London, Neil Warnock had favoured Jason Puncheon on the Palace right wing, handing the United man just two starts. The arrival of Gus Poyet’s men, however, marked successive starts for Zaha and it seemed to remedy the England international’s woes and loosen the shackles of apparent low self-belief.

Some things never change, but while Warnock got a word in the ear from referee Phil Dowd for a verbal volley before his side fell behind, Zaha was proving the host’s best asset in an otherwise dispiriting first half for the Eagles.

Playing with the same panache and assurance which earned him a £15million move to Manchester United two seasons ago, he ran left-back Patrick van Aanholt ragged. And the former Chelsea man was forced from the field with injury after Zaha’s tricks got him in a clumsy tangle, before the Palace man switched wings and started to give Santiago Vergini a dose of the same treatment.

Palace should have been ahead before Steven Fletcher opened the scoring, when Zaha laid on Marouane Chamakh moments before sending a vicious cross just inches shy over Fraizer Campbell’s brow. But perhaps most encouragingly, Zaha was doing his defensive duties, thrice snuffing out the advancing Black Cats as they looked to break down the inside channels during the first half.

And it was the United youngster whose fancy footwork had Selhurst Park rocking just before the hour-mark. Leading the second-half revival, Zaha – at this point involved in everything - jinked past  Anthony Réveillère (twice, for good measure) before sending over the ball which forced Wes Brown’s inadvertent own goal. “He’s just too good for you,” rang around south east London for the first time since the 21-year-old’s return.

But it wasn’t to be for Palace and Zaha, as Jordi Gomez crashed in an impressive second before Fletcher capitalised on the numerical advantage to grab his second after Mile Jedinak’s dismissal.

“I signed for a couple of years at United so the goal is to do my best here for the season and go back and make sure I get back into the team and the England set-up,” Zaha told reporters in September.

And as he begins to re-emerge from his shell, there's every chance he'll find his feet once more. A string of starts will help, but the winger will have to put those hopes on hold for now, as Palace – winless in four - travel to his parent club Manchester United on Saturday. A clause in his loan deal says Zaha can’t feature.