On the brink of stardom - Wilfried Zaha gets opportunity to impress Manchester United & Liverpool in League Cup semi-final

The 19-year-old, who won praise when the Eagles toppled the Red Devils, now has a chance to fire his side towards Wembley and justify the rumours linking him to the Premier League
By George Ankers

For the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, the League Cup may not be the most coveted of trophies, but it does have the ability to thrust those slightly lower down the rungs into the spotlight – and so it threatens to do for Crystal Palace sensation Wilfried Zaha.

The 19-year-old forward was overshadowed in the headlines by Darren Ambrose’s 35-yard wonder-strike in the aftermath of the Championship outfit’s shock quarter-final victory at Old Trafford on November 30, but the watching scouts only had eyes for one man.

Now Zaha has the chance to push his stock even higher as he seeks to fire Dougie Freedman’s side past Cardiff City to Wembley in Tuesday’s semi-final second leg.

The Ivorian-born youngster, whose family

7.5 He was eager to impress on the big stage and he caused Evans lots of problems with his pace and power. He spent the first half on the right side and was the dangerman for the visitors, although his link-up play could have been better. He moved onto the left in the second half and had plenty of success against makeshift full-back Park.
(including nine brothers) moved to England when he was very young, entered the Palace academy at 15 and made his professional debut, coincidentally also against the Welsh team, in March 2010.

Since then, he has been growing in confidence and influence at Selhurst Park, to the point of drawing two of the country’s most historied clubs into a race for his signature.

Despite his tender age - just 17 at the start of last season - Zaha’s raw talent demanded first-team inclusion and he racked up 44 appearances in his first full campaign during 2010-11, 27 of those from the start.

The young Eagle’s form in his freshman term soon earned him a call-up to the England Under-19 squad and the fleet-footed attacker looks a sure bet to push on towards full international honours in the coming years. A move to the Premier League first, though, is almost certainly on the cards.

United and Liverpool are known admirers, with Palace boss Dougie Freedman confirming that he has spoken to both clubs’ managers about his prize asset. The Scot insists, though, that the starlet is staying in London for the time being, and the League Cup is believed to be key to that hope.

After securing a 1-0 lead in the home leg a fortnight previously, Palace have one foot on the Wembley pitch as they prepare to face Cardiff once again. If they follow through on their advantage and confirm a glamour final against either Liverpool or Manchester City in February, that would, it is understood, signal an end to any chance of the Eagles having to cash in on the hotshot forward in the current transfer window.

 ZAHA'S SEASON 2011-12

Young right-back Nathaniel Clyne is also believed to be on United’s radar, with the 20-year-old’s contract expiring in the summer, so a date at the national stadium may well represent Palace’s only shot at a memorable achievement with their current side before its youthful stars are snatched away.

A tricky dribbler with plenty of pace, Zaha has been utilised both on the wing and through the middle but, while thrilling and dangerous, has yet to truly ignite in front of goal.

Five strikes and five assists so far in 2011-12 mark the prodigious attacker down as a vital influence in a low-scoring Palace side. Freedman’s men have struggled to find the net all season, their paltry total of 26 in the goals-for column being the fifth-worst in the Championship, and Zaha has been directly involved in 10 of their overall total of 37.

Even so, of course, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish are not yet looking for the finished product. Their interest is based on his evident promise, a spark for which they are understood to be ready to shell out at least £10 million.

The 19-year-old now has the chance to prove to his suitors that he is ready to make the step up to the big time with a match-winning turn in Wales – and then, perhaps, a date with history on February 26.

Premier League fans had better dust off their ABBA CDs – ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You... Zaha’ looks set to be a mainstay on the top-flight terraces in the not-too-distant future.

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