Some refer to it as ‘a Wayne Rooney’ after the former Manchester United forward was shown a red card for sarcastically applauding in the face of referee Kim Milton Nielsen during a Champions League game against Villarreal all the way back in 2005. Now, the act of petulance might be refereed to as ‘a Wilfried Zaha.’
Andre Marriner, just like Nielsen 14 years ago, didn’t tolerate Zaha’s show of sarcasm, showing the Crystal Palace winger a second yellow card just moments after his first booking. Ultimately, Zaha may have cost his side two points, with Southampton using their man advantage to score a late leveller.
And yet Zaha’s behaviour was somewhat understandable, justifiable even. Roy Hodgson said he had “empathy” for the 26-year-old, adding: “His reaction to not receiving a foul when he was clearly pushed off the ball – obviously people do get frustrated. But I can’t condone, unfortunately, the applauding of the referee. That is something you can’t do.”
Zaha’s experience on Wednesday night was typical for him. He spent the game having his ankles clipped, his shins clattered and his feet trodden on. Zaha is a target for Premier League hard men and referees don’t do enough to protect him. It’s a common problem across the division, but the Palace winger gets it worst than most.
Wingers and tricksters have made this point for years. It was something Sir Alex Ferguson used to talk about back when Cristiano Ronaldo graced the Premier League and nothing has changed since then. It’s still common to see the bottom of Eden Hazard’s socks all torn up and bloody from opponents hacking at him. The English game must do more to protect its most skilful players.
As things stand, though, Zaha should do what he can to leave these shores. The 26-year-old has recently been linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund, although with the January transfer window now closed he will have to wait until the summer to flee. The Bundesliga would be a good place for Zaha to flourish.
His move to Germany would be different to the ones that have taken the likes of Jadon Sancho and Reiss Nelson there. Sancho and Nelson were denied opportunities to grow and develop in the Premier League and so looked to the Bundesliga for first team football. Zaha has that and more at Crystal Palace, becoming the Eagles’ star player over the past two seasons.
Instead, Zaha needs a league and a club to give him a platform. Dortmund would be a good fit, with Lucien Favre’s side committed to playing fast and furious football. If it works for Sancho then it would work for Zaha too. At 26 years old, the next few years of Zaha’s career will define him and he can do that in Germany.
This isn’t to say that the Bundesliga is the only place Zaha could go. If Borussia Dortmund are interested then there would surely be other suitors were the winger to decide to leave Crystal Palace. Pretty much every other European league is better at protecting tricky wingers like Zaha.
He would have options.
Zaha has since been charged by The FA for improper conduct, meaning he might now face more than the customary one-game suspension for sarcastically applauding the referee in Wednesday’s 1-1 draw on the south coast. This mustn’t have come as a surprise to the Palace winger, but nonetheless, his sense of disgruntlement is surely still high.
The time is right for Zaha to take the next step in his career. After flopping at Manchester United, he has more than proven himself at Crystal Palace and as he heads into his peak years the winger must consider his next move. That move should be to somewhere outside the Premier League.