Many will claim Wilfried Zaha is returning to Old Trafford on Tuesday night with a point to prove after spending two-and-a-half forgettable years as a Manchester United player. But it was hard for the winger to show what he was capable of when he was afforded 167 minutes of action.
Zaha is part of the Galatasaray squad aiming to inflict more misery on United. The winger made the somewhat surprising move to Istanbul in the summer at the end of his Crystal Palace contract. There were offers from across the continent and Saudi Arabia but Zaha had his mind set on the Champions League and a new challenge in Turkey.
The Ivory Coast international may not have thought he would be back at Old Trafford so quickly but he will be more than comfortable in the surroundings. He has been back before, most memorably scoring twice in a 3-1 Palace win in 2020 to follow up a victory the previous season at the ground he briefly called home.
Speaking at the press conference last night after Galatasaray arrived in Manchester later than planned, Zaha certainly didn’t seem concerned about his struggles in the city as a youngster.
“I’ll be honest, when you look at my face do you think I am bothered at all? No,” said Zaha. “Realistically I think I went through a phase where you either build from it or you die out from it. And me personally, I was never going to die out from it. It built my character. I was determined to not let my career die out because I went somewhere and it didn’t work out. I was just determined to reach where I wanted to reach and I am here today.”
At United, Zaha did not seem to fit in. Sir Alex Ferguson signed him on the recommendation of his son, Darren. But by the time Zaha joined his United teammates, David Moyes had replaced Ferguson and he did not see a place in the team for the young winger. Teammates felt he did not integrate well into the squad because no one at the club offered him the nurturing hand he required.
When he agreed a five-and-a-half-year deal with United in 2013, he would have expected to be a Champions League player soon after. Yet neither Moyes nor Louis van Gaal gave Zaha the opportunity to showcase his skills.
He was 20 years old when he made the move from south London to Manchester but his progress halted and he was loaned to Cardiff then Palace. Zaha returned on a permanent move to Selhurst Park in February 2015 and spent eight more successful years with his first club. “Obviously Manchester United’s a team that I was at before, I played for them before a long, long time ago,” Zaha said. “Ten years forward, I’m 30 years old. I feel like I’ve matured in my game, I am at a big club, Galatasaray.”
There were always rumours Zaha would move again within the Premier League to a team with a greater chance of silverware. Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea were all linked but in the end his time in England concluded where it started.
Galatasaray will give Zaha the opportunity to win trophies, adding to his tally of one Community Shield medal, collected in his first game for United.
There is still a case of what might have been at United but Zaha’s efforts for Palace showed his talents over an extended period in the top flight and he is doing the same in the Turkish Super Lig. Injury meant he missed a month of action while trying to settle into life in a new country but he scored his first goal for the club in a 2-1 victory against Ankaragucu on Saturday and he has required little time to adapt on the pitch.
In the opening group game draw against Copenhagen, Zaha entered the field of play with his side two goals behind and helped them to secure a valuable point. He is certainly having an impact and his move to Galatasaray is looking a shrewd one.
The club prepared for their return to the Champions League group stage with a busy summer in the transfer market, adding plenty of European experience as they seek to progress to the knockout stages. Zaha said: “We have a lot of talent, a lot of experience. Obviously they’ve got a good team but at the same time we’ve got players who can hurt them as well.”
Zaha may have always dreamed of playing a Champions League tie at Old Trafford and he will achieve it on Tuesday, a decade later than planned. It has not been a straightforward journey but he has finally reached his destination.