For Crystal Palace, life after Wilfried Zaha started well. On Saturday afternoon at Bramall Lane, they cruised to a victory over Sheffield United. It spoilt what was billed as a huge day for the Blades, a triumphant return to the top flight after two seasons away.
In reality, though, the 1-0 victory offered up more evidence that the home side, finding it difficult to strengthen their squad this summer, will struggle this season more than anything else. Palace got the win and looked good enough going forward to have scored more goals, but Odsonne Edouard’s finishing left a lot to be desired in spite of him scoring a second half winner.
Losing Zaha, particularly on a free transfer after he joined Galatasaray once his contract at Selhurst Park expired, was always going to be a huge blow. For years, he carried the team in a creative sense, and that reliability felt unhealthy as time went on. Palace did recognise that fact, and by the time of his departure, he was one of a number of key attacking players rather than the sole hope for any creativity or inspiration. Nevertheless, he was always going to be difficult to replace and Roy Hodgson will hope Zaha doesn’t end up defining Palace’s season from afar.
Matheus França has joined from Brazilian side Flamengo, but is currently injured. At the age of 20, heading into an incredibly fast, physician footballing environment, it can be assumed his impact will not be at its biggest for a while. Michael Olise, with reports of a release clause in his contract swirling alongside links to the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, was also missing at the weekend, but was specifically name checked by Hodgson as a player he needs back quickly to help fill the void Zaha has left behind.
“We need people like Michael back if we are to continue being as good as we were last year and further reinforcements to make certain the players out on the field today know there are people pushing for their places,” he said.
But one player who will be primed for a talismanic role this season is Eberechi Eze. Like Zaha, it is his propensity to entertain with his skill on the ball that has driven him to such a key role in the team. But he showed in glimpses on Saturday that he can be effective and contribute to key attacking moments. The way he picks up space and holds on to it as the game goes on around him, only to find the pass or get a shot off at the right moment is what makes the difference for Crystal Palace.
He faded somewhat as the game went on, but Palace were in control and content in simply maintaining Sheffield United by then. In the first half, the three-man defence for the home side simply couldn’t keep him in check and, although there weren’t many key moments in the game for him to speak of, he was generally the architect of most of what Palace were doing in the final third. It was a really intelligent, calm performance and one that suggested he could easily become a new driving force going forward.
Hodgson was asked about Eze but stressed he didn’t want the playmaker to become the new Zaha. The difficulty is that, on the evidence of Saturday, it is hard to see that not becoming the case. Perhaps the plan was specific to the opponent but there wasn’t much in terms of tempo maintenance in the midfield from Palace; Jefferson Lerma protected the back line in the middle well on debut, but there was a sense that the plan was to find Eze as soon as possible and turn Sheffield United around on the counter-attack.
Eze’s reputation has been growing for some time. After England recognition last season, there is sense that he can only get better. But with Olise linked with a move away, clubs will undoubtedly be tracking him, too. Palace should enjoy him while they can and, despite Hodgson’s desire not to, build their team around him for the season ahead.