Neil Warnock admits Wilfried Zaha has the talent to condemn Cardiff City to relegation this afternoon, which would be a poor reward for the manager who helped revive the striker’s career.
Warnock may end up on the receiving end if a Zaha-inspired Crystal Palace win at the Bluebirds, who host their final match of the season still seeking some kind of late campaign miracle.
Only a victory can take Cardiff’s survival struggle to a final day trip to Old Trafford. Lose, and they are definitely down; draw, and they are effectively so given their inferior goal difference to Brighton.
Even if they win, they must hope that Brighton, four points clear of the final relegation spot, fail to earn a point at Arsenal on Sunday just to take their hopes of making a ‘Great Escape’ to Manchester United next weekend.
A defeat would be an unkind reunion with Zaha, since it was Warnock who helped resuce Zaha’s career five years ago when the player returned to Palace – and a recently appointed Warnock – following the Ivory Coast international’s disastrous £15m move to United.
“Wilfried wasn’t in a good place when he came back from Manchester United,” said Warnock, of the final United signing made under Sir Alex Ferguson.
“I met him in the chairman’s office and I had half an hour with him. It was obvious he felt let down by Manchester United and when I spoke to him I could understand why he felt that.
“He was only a young lad and he needed help – an arm around the shoulder. But it didn’t appear he got any of that.
“But that’s what you do – you go away and rekindle that enthusiasm. He’s always had tremendous skill and now he’s showing people his worth. He will end up at one of the top clubs in Europe.”
Zaha has been part of a Palace side that have won four of their last five away games and have the best record of any Premier League team on their travels in 2019, other than Manchester City.
Cardiff, on the other hand, have won just once – away to Brighton – in their last six games and would have gone the way of Fulham and Huddersfield already if Brighton had not struggled for points.
Warnock is nothing if not a realist and there will be no shortage of know-how and common sense when he and Roy Hodgson – his fellow septuagenarian – shake hands and lock horns on the touchline.
The Bluebirds manager has been around too long to feel light-headed at the prospect of relegation, but he is lighter in the pocket after being fined £20,000 by the FA for comments he made about referees after the controversial defeat to Chelsea in March.
He will not be appealing but after learning Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta had suggested he might help pay the fine, Warnock added: “They got win bonuses when they all know they shouldn’t have got anything at all. I’m not saying that it would be justice, but it would be nice of him to do it.”
The odds are stacked against Cardiff and Warnock, but the manager seems to be going out of the league the same way he came into it – railing at authority.
Warnock said on Friday the Football Association were “out of order” in hiring a barrister to force him to accept the fine over remarks about referees.
The 70-year-old, represented by an official from the League Managers’ Association, felt he was unfairly equipped to fight his corner on Wednesday, having denied three rule breaches during post-match interviews.
Warnock was informed on Friday that two crowd funding schemes had already raised £515 to help him cover the costs of his fine, while Azpilicueta has also pledged to chip in.
“The scope of things you can’t say now is pretty much everything. They (the FA) probably just want robot managers or managers who don’t speak English,” Warnock said.
“That’s the way it’s going now and the humour has gone out of the game. I’ll just have to say ‘no comment’ and be a boring person.”
Warnock does not believe Harry Arter will be fit, with the Republic of Ireland midfielder struggling with a calf muscle strain.
Kenneth Zohore and Aron Gunnarsson are doubts, while Joe Ralls, Callum Paterson, Sol Bamba and Matt Connolly are all long-term absentees.
Crystal Palace will be without Christian Benteke, who took a blow to the cheekbone during an accidental collision with Michael Keane in the draw with Everton and has not trained all week.
The Belgian striker could return for a final-day meeting with Bournemouth, but Mamadou Sakho, James Tomkins and Jeffrey Schlupp are all out for the season.