Aston Villa’s Boxing Day clash with Crystal Palace will see two of the Premier League’s entertainers go head-to-head. When they are at the top of their games, there are few better players in the division to watch than Jack Grealish and Wilfried Zaha.
Both are enjoying fantastic seasons for their respective clubs. Grealish has scored five goals and provided six assists to date, but his influence cannot be measured by numbers alone. The Villa captain is the heartbeat of his team and he has taken his game to new levels this term. Having at times been deployed as a No.8 as Villa battled against the drop last time out, Grealish now looks content playing from the left flank, where he is given license to drift infield and get on the ball as much as possible. He played in more of a No.10 role against West Bromwich Albion at the weekend and may do so again here.
Zaha’s role has also changed in recent times. Previously an out-and-out winger, he has increasingly been used in central areas at Palace. Roy Hodgson first used the tactic during his first few months in charge in 2017, when more natural centre-forwards were absent through injury. These days, Palace’s go-to setup features Zaha up front alongside one of Jordan Ayew, Christian Benteke or Michy Batshuayi.
Like Grealish, Zaha is afforded the freedom to drift across the pitch when Palace have possession. The Ivory Coast international often moves out wide in search of space, and his speed and trickery make him a nightmare opponent for opposition full-backs. He has, however, become a great deal more clinical in and around the penalty area, having scored seven goals already this season.
Grealish and Zaha are their clubs’ star players, but their importance goes beyond that. Both are talismanic figures, academy products and the symbols of their sides both on and off the pitch. Very few of their Premier League colleagues experience the same level of adulation from their club’s supporters as Grealish and Zaha. Picture Aston Villa or Crystal Palace and it is impossible not to think of them.
Born in Birmingham, Grealish first joined his boyhood club at the age of six. He gradually progressed through the youth ranks and made his first-team debut as a 19-year-old in 2014. Despite interest from elsewhere, Grealish stayed put after Villa’s relegation from the Premier League two years later, and stuck with them for three seasons in the Championship. Linked with Manchester United in the summer, he instead signed a new five-year deal at Villa Park.
Zaha, of course, did move to Manchester United earlier in his career. That transfer came about after his brilliant form in the second tier earned Palace, the club he had joined aged 11, promotion to the Premier League in 2013. After failing to make the grade at Old Trafford, he returned to south London and promptly picked up where he left off.
Zaha is three years older than Grealish, and has openly sought a move away from Selhurst Park in the last couple of summers. Yet his importance to Palace and his own contractual situation – the forward is tied down until 2023 – has seen the club resist all attempts to prise him away. Despite his desire to test himself at a higher level, Zaha has never lost the backing of the Palace supporters.
Grealish is still only 25 but there may come a time where he too seeks pastures new. The England international is an exceptional talent and Villa fans are particularly proud of him because of his local roots and lifelong attachment to the club. If he does move to a Champions League club one day, he will surely do so with the supporters’ best wishes.
For now, Grealish and Zaha will both be focused on Boxing Day. The neutrals should be too, as two of the Premier League’s foremost entertainers attempt to inspire their teams to victory at Villa Park.
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