Transfer saga awaits Zaha after his Ivory Coast knocked out of AFCON by Algeria
SUEZ, Egypt -- A single kick can make the difference between a summer of glory and one of doubt. When Serey Die stepped up to take Ivory Coast's fifth penalty, knowing he had to score after Youcef Belaili's miss had given Les Elephants a reprieve, the watching Wilfried Zaha might have felt particularly inclined to say a prayer.
Zaha's work had long since been done here; he had set up a second-half equaliser for Jonathan Kodjia with a blistering run before being sacrificed for Maxwel Cornet's fresher legs early in extra time. But when Die struck exactly the same post as Belaili, turning the Suez Stadium pitch into a swarm of delirious Algerians, reality bit.
The next eight days will not be a white-knuckle ride towards the Africa Cup of Nations final. Instead Zaha must return to London and face up to the swirling speculation about his club future that has stalked him around Egypt throughout the past three weeks.
It could be a long few weeks for anyone wondering whether Crystal Palace's talisman will eventually switch to Arsenal -- a move he is reported to want but about which he has kept his counsel. If any of Unai Emery's spies were looking to see how he shouldered the responsibility of carrying an African superpower's hopes during this tournament, they may return to North London with mixed feelings. Zaha sprang to life after starting the tournament on the bench, his two goals including a round-of-16 winner against Mali, but his overall form was mixed and the moment came here when his -- and the Elephants' -- luck ran out.
At Palace, where most of his teammates boast only a fraction of his ingenuity, Zaha has become regarded as one of the Premier League's great soloists -- which can be both high praise and a criticism in equal measure. There is sometimes a sense he tries to take on too much for his country, too. Here, he spent an hour running into blind alleys, failing to release the ball in promising positions and overcooking his first touches. Nothing was really coming off but then, with a dart that sliced through midfield, he opened up the pitch and found the perfectly weighted pass from which Kodjia, jinking inside, finished superbly.
Moments later Zaha conceded possession in a similar area and was lucky to see Baghdad Bounedjah, who had earlier clipped the bar with a spot kick, miss a one-on-one as Algeria broke. Zaha is a risk taker and, had Die kept his cool later on, Ivory Coast might have profited handsomely. Instead they fell the wrong side of the margins; just like every game Zaha plays, this one contested on the edge.
For Algeria, who had marginally more of the play over 120 minutes but failed to build on Sofiane Feghouli's well-taken opener, the manner of this win underlined their status as tournament favourites but posed a few questions too. Riyad Mahrez, their own Premier League star, has played more of a supporting role to Bounedjah and the brilliant Belaili at this AFCON and did not quite hit the high notes here, slipping one first-half opportunity wide and seeing Mamadou Bagayoko brilliantly clear another shot off the line after the break.
If he steps up half a gear then, given the smoothness of their all-round performances, Algeria should have the X-factor that carries them beyond Nigeria in Sunday's semifinal. His off-pitch influence remains profound, however: "Mahrez was the one talking a lot as usual," said his coach, Djamel Belmadi, fondly when recalling how the Manchester City player had offered pep talks before the shootout. He had been substituted by then, but was intent on retaining some level of impact.
Belmadi clung to Youcef Atal, the Algeria right-back who departed early with a shoulder injury, beside the dugout as the penalties were taken. "He [was] crying because he sees the match is difficult ... it wouldn't be human if I didn't react," Belmadi said, before admitting that he cried "maybe a little" himself. It was that kind of night: the best match of this year's AFCON so far and one that tested both of these heavyweights to their very limits.
In the end, though, it was Zaha and Ivory Coast who felt genuine sorrow. There is sometimes the concern that players carry international disappointments into their club form during the early stages of a season. The transfer saga he looks likely to feature in upon his return to England may serve to clear his head in short order.