In Focus: Zaha out to prove a point on Wembley return

Matthew Storey
LiveScore
Wilfried Zaha will play against England for the Ivory Coast tonight
Wilfried Zaha will play against England for the Ivory Coast tonight

If the past 10 years had gone differently, Wilfried Zaha could be lining up against Ivory Coast for England tonight.

Instead, the ex-Three Lions international will represent the country of his birth on their first ever visit to Wembley.

As he continues to thrive at Crystal Palace, we look at why Zaha swapped England for Les Elephants and the friction that still lingers today.

History maker 

If Zaha plays for Patrice Beaumelle’s side at Wembley tonight he will create history as the first ever player to face England having represented them at senior level previously.

Back in November 2012, Roy Hodgson handed the then Championship player his debut as a substitute in a 4-2 defeat to Sweden.

Raheem Sterling made his international bow alongside Zaha but while he has gone on to play 73 times for the Three Lions, Zaha only made one more appearance nine months later against Scotland.

The split

Wilfried Zaha made his England debut against Sweden in November 2012
Wilfried Zaha made his England debut against Sweden in November 2012

That game versus Scotland came shortly after Zaha made the move to Manchester United — but his struggles there saw him cast into the international wilderness.

After a move back to Palace 12 months later, Zaha continued to thrive at Selhurst Park.

Three Lions boss Hodgson seemingly paid little attention to the winger, while Ivory Coast put on a charm offensive to try and convince him to switch allegiances.

Zaha has said: "It was just like I was rejected from the England side. I didn't get picked or even a look in for four years. No one even thought about me at all."

And in November 2016, Zaha made the decision to represent the country of his birth, to much fanfare on the West Coast of Africa.

Tension 

That switch coincided with the period when Gareth Southgate was in caretaker charge following Sam Allardyce’s one-game reign as boss.

He picked relatively safe squads in that time, sticking to what ex-Palace boss Alan Pardew perceived as a "big-club bias" during the Hodgson era.

And when he made comments about players wanting to represent England, the relationship between Southgate, Zaha and Palace soured.

Ahead of tonight’s game, Southgate said: "I remember being asked at the time — and we were asked about a few different cases — and I said players have to have the desire to play for England.

"That was slightly tweaked a bit, I would say, so that created a little bit of an atmosphere with Wilf and [Palace chairman] Steve Parish for a while.

"That wasn't an insinuation on Wilf — you couldn't have a more passionate player as anyone who follows Crystal Palace knows."

Soaring Eagle

Wilfried Zaha has already scored nine Premier League goals for Crystal Palace this term
Wilfried Zaha has already scored nine Premier League goals for Crystal Palace this term

And everyone at Palace is more than aware of the impact Zaha has had over the past decade as they look set to secure a ninth successive top-flight season.

This term has been different though, with Patrick Vieira’s summer signings helping to take the burden off Zaha.

Conor Gallagher has shone since the season kicked off in August, Michael Olise has been superb since the turn of the year and 2020 recruit Eberechi Eze looks ready to stamp his mark on the side after injury problems.

That has allowed Zaha to flourish, scoring 10 goals in all competitions, just one shy of his career best.

Even then, Southgate was coy on what he might have added to England if he had been part of the squad over the last six years.

Southgate said: "He's a good player playing at a high level every week.

"He felt the Ivory Coast was the route to go and I totally understood that. It's hard to say what his role might have been with us.

"Raheem has been a key part of our team for a long period, Jesse Lingard had done a fabulous job and, at the start, we had Adam Lallana, who was our player of the year for the first 18 months or so."

Point to prove

There will be no player on the Wembley pitch tonight keener to put in a memorable display than Zaha.

He has not spoken ahead of the clash, though will undoubtedly be motivated to impress.

Representing Les Elephants in three Africa Cup of Nations has been the standout achievement of his international career to date.

But playing a starring role in the country’s first ever meeting with England would be on a personal highlight reel for the Abidjan-born, South London-made star.

Tags

Wilfried ZahaEnglandIvory CoastPremier LeagueCrystal Palace
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