On nights like these, it’s almost impossible to imagine Wilfried Zaha playing for anyone else. A spectacular goal in Patrick Vieira’s 50th match as Crystal Palace manager in the week that the hero of SE25 was once again linked with a move away from his boyhood club looked like being enough to see off Brentford until substitute Yoane Wissa spoiled the party late on.
It was a sucker punch that said everything about the resilience of Thomas Frank’s squad and left Vieira to take out his frustrations on a nearby water bottle, with Ben Mee’s late header hitting the crossbar as the visitors almost snatched all three points.
Zaha’s presence in the hosts’ starting lineup after he missed their matches against Aston Villa and Manchester City with a knee injury would have calmed the nerves of any Palace fans concerned with rumours that the Ivory Coast forward could be on his way in this transfer window.
Vieira’s cryptic response to a question about the 29-year-old’s future before this match that “there is what I think and there is what the chairman thinks and there is what the player thinks” certainly did not help dampen speculation over links with a move to Chelsea. The home supporters made their feelings clear in the early stages here, breaking into their first Zaha chat within minutes of the start.
With Michael Olise – making his first Premier League start of the season after a foot injury – and Jean-Philippe Mateta also restored to the Palace attack and Brentford’s summer signing Keane Lewis-Potter selected alongside Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, the omens at least looked good for an improvement on the two encounters between these two sides last season.
A pair of instantly forgettable scoreless draws were only really notable for providing Vieira with his first point as Palace manager last August, since when they have gone from strength to strength as an attacking force under the former Arsenal midfielder. Yet under Frank, Brentford are nothing but astute and organised opponents.
Other than an Eberechi Eze shot that sailed wide and Jeffrey Schlupp’s drive that was easily gathered by David Raya, Palace found it hard to create openings in the opening 20 minutes.
The visitors’ first real sight of goal came on the half-hour mark after Olise felt he had been fouled outside his own box. But Zanka could not hit the target from close range after being set up by Toney’s touch from a deep cross. Olise’s driving run from the right flank then found Zaha inside the penalty area but Aaron Hickey was able to block his goal-bound shot.
The Palace forward felt aggrieved when he went down under pressure from Zanka just outside the box and referee Simon Hooper waved away the protests. His mood did not improve when no foul was given after Shandon Baptiste appeared to grab his shirt and responded by bringing down the Brentford midfelder.
Zaha almost had his revenge on the stroke of half-time after another excellent cross from Olise, only for Hickey to again come to his side’s rescue with a timely block.
At the other end, Toney was inches away from connecting after Zanka headed a free kick back across the Palace goalmouth.
It seemed like the only way the deadlock could be broken was via a mistake and Schlupp should have made more of his opportunity at the start of the second half after Cheick Doucouré had stolen the ball from Mathias Jensen on the edge of Brentford’s box.
Olise was much closer with an unstoppable shot from long range that cannoned off the outside of the post and away to safety. Almost inevitably, though, Palace’s breakthrough owed everything to Zaha.
Hickey knew exactly what to expect when he received the pass from Doucouré on the left side of Brentford’s penalty area but there was no stopping him cutting inside and unleashing a shot that nestled in the top corner.
Zaha celebrated his goal by clenching his fists in front of the adoring Holmesdale Road stand. Frank’s response was to make a triple substitution, with Josh Dasilva producing the first save of any note from Vicente Guaita. But Wissa was not so wasteful when Vitaly Janelt’s cross picked him out at the far post with two minutes remaining to break Palace’s hearts.
It could have been worse had Guaita not saved from Rico Henry before Mee’s header that would have completed the unlikeliest of comebacks.