BY ANDREW MCSTEEN
Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha returns to Cardiff for the first time today after playing for the Welsh side from January to May 2014 as part of a loan deal from Manchester United.
It was a period in which he failed to score in 13 games and, in which he later admitted, performed as a “ghost” of himself. Later that year he re-joined the side from SE25 under now Cardiff boss Neil Warnock and since then, the Ivory Coast international has gone on to become one of the most-feared Premier League forwards.
“I don’t know anything about his time at Cardiff, but if you ask me are the Cardiff fans going to give him a hard time I would think so, as most fans do when we play away from home, because he’s a dangerous opponent,” said Zaha’s current boss, Roy Hodgson to the South London Press ahead of the match.
“The fans will be fearful that he will produce some skills and assists or goals which will do their team no good, so I expect him to be greeted with a lot of love because he’s a dangerous opponent. All of us must expect it’s going to be a partisan crowd who will do their level best to help Cardiff to win the game so we have to accept that we aren’t going to be their favourites, their favourites will be playing in blue that day and we will be playing in a different colour.”
The match will see Cardiff relegated if Palace win, but if Warnock’s side were to get a positive result, it would mean Palace’s big rivals Brighton – the only other team who could get demoted – cannot rest easy, ahead of their away match against Arsenal on Sunday afternoon, and depending on the result of that match, the final relegation decision could go down to the final game of the season.
“Palace fans don’t believe that,” said Hodgson, addressing the rumours about Palace fans wanting their club to lose to Cardiff to help relegate Brighton. “They say those things, but it’s bravado, a laddish thing to do. Crystal Palace fans will be expecting me to put out the best team that I think is possible for the day and is most capable of winning the game and then they will be expecting us to do our best to win it, I don’t really hold to that – it’s a thing that’s said but not really believed.
“I don’t think any of us should be disrespecting the importance of a Premier League fixture,” he continued. “I know it is exceptionally irritating for teams who are fighting an important battle, either to win something or who are facing relegation, to find that suddenly they’ve got a difficult opponent their week but the other team they are fighting against are playing a team that doesn’t care anymore and is virtually handing them the match on a plate.
“If you say to me; ‘do you feel that’s wrong and that we shouldn’t be doing that?,’ then I would 100%, but on the other hand, what people should not be saying either is that – if you make one or two changes which you think is the best thing for your team – you’re disrespecting them, then that’s got to be within your rights to do those things.
“We don’t pick a team to suit the opposition, we pick a team to suit ourselves. But we should respect the competition – Crystal Palace will be doing their utmost on Saturday to win the football match. For the Palace fans, the league and for anyone in competition with Cardiff at this stage – we know it’s only Brighton – it’s only right that we try to go there and do our best to win it, and if we don’t win it will be because Cardiff were the better team on the day.
“All people in that situation have my absolutely empathy, there is no doubt about that,” he added. “But in football matches it’s not you that actually relegates somebody, it’s the fact that those clubs have not been able to get enough points previous to that, so a game will finally come around and you say; ‘OK, now we can’t make it,’ but it’s not your opponent on that day that’s done it to you, it’s the fact that you’ve got so few points up to that day.”
Christian Benteke will be missing up front for the Eagles after suffering a cheekbone injury last week against Everton, and with fellow striker Bakary Sako out of contract at the end of season, Alexander Sorloth on loan at Gent and Jordan Ayew and Michy Batshuayi’s loan deals coming to an end with Swansea and Chelsea respectively, the Palace boss has some work to do with his attacking force ahead of next season.
“(Chairman) Steve Parish, (sporting director) Dougie Freedman and I will have a meeting and until such time I’ve no idea of what finances and funds are going to be available,” said Hodgson about his plans for his playing squad next season. “I’ve no idea even what players are actually going to be available. Batshuayi is a Chelsea player as far as I’m concerned.
“It will have to be a question as much for Chelsea as for us – we can’t just presume that he’s available.”
PICTURE BY KEITH GILLARD