Forwards must step up and finally solve Zaha issue as Palace face goal-happy Gulls

“We must find a way of making certain it is not a case of if he does not play, we cannot win,” Hodgson said. “If we want to get that monkey off our back, then we had better start winning games when Wilf is not there.”

It was far from pretty, but Palace did just that. They managed only three shots compared to Brighton’s 25, but a 95th-minute strike from Christian Benteke secured the ultimate smash-and-grab win at the Amex.

Fast forward two years and Palace once again have the “sword of Damocles”, as Hodgson put it, hanging over them before a clash with their fierce rivals. Zaha is set to miss Saturday’s game at Selhurst Park with a hamstring injury that could keep him out for the whole of February.

That robbery at the Amex two years ago aside, Hodgson’s appeal for Palace to better cope without their star man has not been answered. The Eagles are looking to improve a miserable record of just four wins in the past 30 Premier League matches Zaha has missed.

That is a statistic unlikely to feature in Patrick Vieira’s team talk, but the Frenchman will know the need to address the issue is now more pressing than ever. Zaha is out of contract in the summer and expected to depart, leaving his injury absence as a dress rehearsal for what is set to come.

Michael Olise and Eberechi Eze both have enough talent to suggest they can become leading men, though the numbers tell a clear story: the pair have scored five times between them this season, one fewer than top-scorer Zaha.

If not from midfield or wide areas, then the goals need to come from up front. Yet, Jean-Philippe Mateta and Jordan Ayew have only a goal each, while just one of Odsonne Edouard’s five strikes have come since October. The question of who will deliver in Zaha’s absence is clear; the answer markedly less so.

The reliance on individual inspiration is particularly significant in the absence of a collective attacking threat. Vieira was brought in to evolve Palace into a more dynamic, progressive team, but heavy post-World Cup defeats by Fulham and Tottenham brought a shift in approach.

There has been little excitement in home draws with Manchester United and Newcastle since then, or narrow defeats at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, with solidity favoured over ambition. These are results that have steadied the ship somewhat, even if it is just one win in 10 matches for Palace.

Coupled with Brighton’s form, it means any successful Palace performance tomorrow is more likely to come from the Hodgson school of thought than it is a masterclass in free-flowing football.

This is a fixture played in recent seasons between two teams often within touching distance in the table. But European football is very much on the agenda for Roberto De Zerbi’s side, who have scored 22 goals since the World Cup. That is as many as Palace have managed all season.

A decade ago, the Eagles faced Brighton in a Championship play-off semi-final — and Zaha took matters into his own hands, scoring twice to send Palace to Wembley and, ultimately, the Premier League.

Up against their fierce rivals once more, and with the post-Zaha era drawing ever nearer, it is high time the talismanic baton was finally passed on.

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