Wilfried Zaha absence gives new Crystal Palace stars chance to stamp mark on Brighton rivalry

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 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Only twelve months ago, the thought of a Crystal Palace teamsheet without Wilfried Zaha on it would’ve caused sleepless nights for most Eagles fans and drawn yawns from many neutrals.

Going into last February’s derby meeting with Brighton, you could not move for mentions of the fact that Roy Hodgson’s team had lost 18 of their previous 20 league games without the winger and, most damningly, failed to even score in all but four of them.

Forget about taking a knife to a gun fight, so cautious and blunt were Palace without their talisman, it often felt like they were turning up with little more than a cardboard shield and a rolling pin.

But times have changed, and not merely because, as it turned out, Hodgson’s men burgled a 2-1 win without the injured Zaha in that game thanks to a 95th-minute Christian Benteke stunner.

The stylistic improvements this season under Patrick Vieira and the summer of arrivals of Michael Olise, Conor Gallagher and Odsonne Edouard, complementing that of Eberechi Eze a year earlier, mean that neither Palace’s points tally, nor neutrals’ pleasure are solely dependent upon Zaha’s presence, as they will attempt to prove this month, with the Ivory Coast winger away at the AFCON.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Ahead of tonight’s trip to the Amex, Vieira has had to urge caution with regards to the expectation being heaped on Olise in particular, after the 20-year-old’s dazzling second-half display against Millwall last weekend, his goal and assist helping Palace come from behind at the break to reach the FA Cup fourth round.

But the Frenchman did namecheck both Olise and Eze, who made his first start since returning from a ruptured Achilles at the Den, when discussing players who could benefit from the losses of Zaha and Jordan Ayew, who is also away, with Ghana. Indeed, such is the promise shown by the young duo, that Palace would surely be tempted to cash-in on the now 29-year-old Zaha were a significant offer to arrive this month.

That ship, though, has probably sailed and for all he may no longer seem indispensable, tonight’s derby will be lacking something for the absence of a player who has been central to the rivalry over the past decade, hero to one set of fans, villain to the other.

Zaha has spoken of feeling genuine hatred towards him from the Seagulls support, having scored eight times in 14 appearances against them, most famously in the 2013 Championship play-off semi-final, when his double sent the south Londoners to Wembley.

With the Ivorian on leave, it will be up to one of the new wave to leave their mark on the fixture.

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