As Manchester United supporters were paying homage to the team’s twentieth domestic title, at the other end of the country, a glimpse of their future was on show. Wilfried Zaha, Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever signing for the club, struck a brace to send Crystal Palace into the playoff final.
Zaha was signed by the Red Devils in the January window for circa £15m before being loaned back to Palace to continue their promotion bid. Next season, he will join up with David Moyes and the rest of the United squad, as the club look set to embark on a new era.
There have been questions about the role that Zaha might play at Manchester United in the immediacy. His star seemed to have faded somewhat as Palace have gone through a downturn in form since the turn of the year. But on the evidence of his virtuoso display in the backyard of his team’s fiercest rivals, Zaha is capable of playing a prominent role for the Champions in his debut season.
For watching United supporters, there was much to admire about Zaha.
Physically, he looks tailor made for the Premier League. He has pace to burn, a rangy somatotype and a strong running style.
Technically too, he looks to have the box set. From the left flank against Brighton, he demonstrated an ability to attack his full-back on the inside and the outside, clearly at ease cutting in and hitting it with his right-foot or getting to the byline and fizzing in crosses with his left.
But we have seen players flourish at this level before that have failed to make that illusive step up before. What makes Zaha any different?
Perhaps, and I suspect this is what attracted Manchester United to him, Zaha has got a good head on his shoulders. Mentally, for such a young man, he seems to be a very strong character.
In the game against Brighton, Zaha picked up a couple of soft free-kicks early on, turning an already hostile crowd against him.
But, with an attitude comparable to a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, the stick seemed to spur him on. Many young players would have recoiled into their shell before such a volatile backdrop. The fact that Zaha thrived on it, was especially impressive.
Despite not having the best first hour, he was constantly looking for the ball and fearless in his running at the Brighton back four. Losing possession didn’t defer him. He merely dusted himself down and had another go. He was relentless in his attempts to get at the opposition.
In the end, this paid off. For when the game was showing little signs of life and when his team needed it most, he stepped up to the mark.
His first goal again showed that Zaha has got something of substance between his ears. Excellent movement and anticipation at the back post enabled him to steal a march on Brighton left-back Wayne Bridge before sending the traveling Palace fans into delirium with a bullet header.
It was from this point on that we saw exactly why United have outlaid so much on a relatively unproven youngster. Zaha proceeded to terrorize the Brighton defenders. Drifting across the front line, his movement and pace gave Palace a wonderful outlet as Brighton attempted to put the Eagles under sustained pressure.
But Palace held strong and it was left to Zaha to put the tie to bed. And how. His second goal showed a little bit of everything.
He positioned himself in-front of the Brighton centre-half looking to get the ball into feet. He shrugged his man off, before a wonderful first touch enabled him to hit the ball left-footed on the turn. It crashed off the bar and into the net in spectacular fashion; Palace were Wembley bound.
So, does he look as though he can be a key player for the Champions next season? Absolutely.
United have been a devastating attacking force this season, but if we were to isolate ways they could potentially get even better, then it would be in wide areas. Antonio Valencia has failed to build on an excellent 2011-12 season, whereas Ashley Young and Nani have both been in and out of the side due to lack of fitness, injuries and loss of form.
So the chance is there for Zaha to come in and make an instant impact. After potentially leading his team to promotion this season, confidence will be high for the youngster. Expect him to come in and make a real impression.
For onlooking United supporters, this would have been the cherry on top of another memorable weekend. All the talk surrounding the club as of late has been of the glorious past their manager has woven in his 26 years at United.
Watching Zaha last night, it doesn’t appear the future looks in bad hands either.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball