Has the opportunity passed for the Crystal Palace wideman to prove himself at a major club, like his Algerian rival is doing?
by James O’Conners
18 months ago, Manchester City spent £60 million to sign Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City, while Wilfried Zaha has seen Crystal Palace reject bids from Arsenal and Everton for his services.
As the transfer window draws to a close, his frustrations appear set to continue.
The duo have many similarities.
Both are inverted wingers in that Zaha is right-footed and plays on the left, whilst Mahrez is left-footed and plays on the right.
Both are fantastic dribbles who are able to eliminate opponents by cutting inside or going on the outside on their weaker foot.
Where they differ is that Mahrez is famed for his ability to cut inside and fire off shots, whilst Zaha is not a particularly regular scorer. They are also very different in physicality, with the West African far more robust in physical challenges and duels.
After both making their names at relatively modest clubs, their paths have diverged.
Mahrez has excelled in recent weeks and was excellent again on Tuesday against Sheffield United.
From a slightly narrower role in Pep Guardiola’s 3-4-2-1 shape for the night – to match up to Chris Wilder’s side – Mahrez won a first half penalty and also set up a clear-cut chance for Raheem Sterling.
By full-time, he had made a game-high five successful dribbles and had created three chances for teammates, not including the penalty won from which Gabriel Jesus was thwarted.
Having had an incredible game against Aston Villa in a 6-1 win, scoring two goals, assisting another and making four successful dribbles, it was a surprise to see him benched against Crystal Palace at the weekend.
He entered the game from the bench for 17 minutes, but spectators were largely robbed of a direct comparison between him and Zaha on the same flank.
As for the Ivory Coast winger, he forced a late own goal out of Fernandinho after blitzing past John Stones in a lively performance against Manchester City, which included five successful dribbles, but he endured an extremely frustrating game on Tuesday.
In an opening half hour against Southampton, when Palace were completely outplayed in every department, Zaha had to feed off scraps.
When right-back Cedric Soares went off injured after 20 minutes, Ralph Hasenhuttl had to move James Ward-Prowse into that role. Considering his recent history of constant tactical fouls in a hatchet man job on Zaha, this was far from ideal for the winger.
Zaha lost his cool after the half-time whistle, lashing out at Ward-Prowse, and the second half descended into a battle against half of the Saints team, who took turns to foul the winger.
Twice Ward-Prowse pushed him over, and later, Oriol Romeu was booked for tugging the West African back. In all, he was fouled five times in the match.
Yet, despite all of this provocation, Palace’s best chances largely came via their left winger.
A Cenk Tosun header came after a lovely pass into Cheikhou Kouyate’s feet inside the box, and a blocked Jordan Ayew shot was as a result of Zaha winning the ball back inside the Saints box.
There was also a lovely slide-rule pass to give Connor Wickham a late, left-footed chance, which the strike lashed high and wide with his left foot.
Whilst Zaha was being double-teamed and roughed up, Mahrez was playing in a side of stars and therefore given a lot more space to operate. Not only that, but City’s game often involves the side pulling teams to one flank before switching play. This gives the Algeria winger constant one-versus-one opportunities.
Unless a surprising late move is forthcoming, Zaha is going to spend the next four months playing for the Eagles, probably taking his appearances up to around the 360-game mark in a Palace shirt.
It is time for him to go, and he may need to burn some bridges to do so by handing in a transfer request and even going ‘on strike’ as so many players have done in the past.
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He just needs to look at the example of Mahrez and see his growth as a footballer when playing alongside better teammates.
At 27 years and three months old, Zaha is still a couple of months younger than Mahrez when he made the move to City, and a full 21 months younger than him overall.
Any concerns that Zaha’s peak has been missed are unfounded and his very best may be yet to come.