SAM SMITH explains why only a bid that would be in the top seven most expensive transfers in world football should be enough for Crystal Palace to consider selling Wilfried Zaha.
It was September 24 2016 when Crystal Palace last won without Wilfried Zaha. The Eagles cannot afford to sell their star man and should only consider bids that start at around £80 million.
Palace, still under the stewardship of Alan Pardew, had gone 2-0 down at Sunderland without Zaha but fought their way back to earn all three points thanks to Christian Benteke’s winner four minutes into added-time.
So much has changed since that trip to Wearside. Four different managers have sat in Selhurst Park’s home dugout. Five of the 15 Palace players who appeared in the game at the Stadium of Light have moved on. Sunderland have dropped two divisions and the Black Cats’ left-back on that day – Patrick van Aanholt – has since appeared 44 times for Palace.
Time, players and managers have moved on, but there is one fact that remains the same 21 months later. Any success the Eagles have had runs in unmitigated tandem with Zaha’s presence in the team.
Pardew lasted just two more months and none of the three managers since have devised a formula to win games without the talismanic Ivorian.
Zaha missed nine league matches last season and Palace were defeated in each; they scored just three goals without the forward. His sheer authority and dictation of Palace’s fortunes were unmistakable and there is no other club in the division that relies so notably on one individual.
Frank de Boer felt being dismissed prior to Zaha’s return from injury rendered his sacking harsh, and the academy graduate’s eventual restoration to the first team and subsequent winning goal against Chelsea in October were the catalyst for his side’s remarkable revival under Roy Hodgson.
The former Manchester United man’s return from a second injury in March coincided with the Eagles’ best spell of the season when they lost just one of their final eight matches to sensationally finish 11th.
It is an over-reliance on an individual that has even become slightly worrying. Palace’s game plan is so heavily dependent on moving the ball to Zaha at the earliest opportunity that the Eagles’ players sometimes look lost and disorganised when he is absent. Even the notoriously meticulous Hodgson failed to devise a working system when he was without his star man.
So it is no surprise that Palace would only accept an astronomical fee should interest in Zaha increase during this transfer window.
The South Londoners are in a unique situation where their key player is worth far more to them than he is to any other club, and keeping him would be more valuable than selling him.
The Premier League’s elite clubs would expect to pay far less for a player of Zaha’s calibre than Palace would be willing to accept. Manchester City spent £49m and £37m on Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane respectively – both are statistically better wingers than Zaha and were crucial to their Premier League domination last season.
Manchester City and their big-spending rivals would not view Zaha as a player who could be their difference between success and failure and hence would be unwilling to pay the minimum £80 million that Palace would require.
But the Eagles’ failure to win any of the 11 games Zaha has missed since the win at Sunderland almost two years ago is the form of a side destined for an inevitable relegation and the financial detriments of not being a Premier League club are extreme.
Palace earned around £114m for finishing 11th last season and Zaha was a key reason for that. The South Londoners can point to the likes of Aston Villa and Sunderland as examples of teams who have both taken monumental hits to their respective financial situations since relegation and Palace could have easily capitulated in the same direction had they gone down in May.
Zaha’s presence in the team kept them in the top division last season. Even the mere mention of his name on a team sheet before a game would increase the sense of belief among the Palace fans and several single-handed match-winning performances pulled the South Londoners away from the bottom three.
It would take more than £80m to get close to replacing his unique stature within the team.
There is a cliche that no player is bigger than their club. And while this may be true, having Zaha is far more valuable to Palace than any transfer fee they will receive.
THE MOST EXPENSIVE PREMIER LEAGUE MOVERS
Philippe Coutinho – Liverpool to Barcelona – £125m
Paul Pogba – Juventus to Man Utd – £105m
Gareth Bale – Tottenham to Real Madrid – £101m
Cristiano Ronaldo – Man Utd to Real Madrid – £94m
Romelu Lukaku – Everton to Man Utd – £84.7m
Luis Suarez – Liverpool to Barcelona – £81.7m
Virgil van Dijk – Southampton to Liverpool – £78.8m
Kevin De Bruyne – Wolfsburg to Man City – £76m