When the fateful moment moment came, it was always likely to arrive through the wit and adventure of Wilfried Zaha.
Zaha had the better of Manchester City from the first whistle, jinking beyond defenders and winning crucial free-kicks to earn his side vital respite.
In the 89th minute, he raised his game to a higher level. In a split second, his dancing feet shuffled beyond two Manchester City players and he powered into the penalty area. Shoulder to shoulder with Raheem Sterling, Zaha hit the turf.
Wilfried Zaha was impressive once again, as Manchester City struggled to deal with his talent
The tricky Palace winger will almost certainly attract attention in the January transfer window
For a moment, we wondered. We wondered whether this was the moment City’s extraordinary undefeated run was over. We wondered whether Roy Hodgson would be the man to bring Pep Guardiola crashing down to earth. Instead, Ederson intervened to save Luka Milivojevic’s penalty and only the winning run was halted.
But still, what an effort this was from Crystal Palace. Zaha had served warning of his potential to disrupt City’s flow. Midway through the first half, the winger opened up his Pandora’s box of tricks.
First came a shimmy to glide away from Bernardo Silva, then came a pirouette and Cruyff turn to mislead Kyle Walker.
By the end of the first half, Walker was left with stretched sinews and twisted blood, as Zaha darted and weaved with menace. When Walker went through the back of Zaha on the half-way line, it summed up City’s mounting frustration. Only moments before, Leroy Sane had petulantly kicked the ball away and received a yellow card.
Zaha won a late penalty for his side, but Luka Milivojevic could not convert from the spot
There were claims Zaha dived, and it remains to be seen whether he will be charged later on
This was a marvellous statement by Crystal Palace. They played with bite, intensity and no little courage. They defended sensibly, concentrated and steely, but also recognised that City’s attacking threat is best repelled when Guardiola’s side peer over their own shoulders every so often, too.
During a compelling game, Palace showed more ambition than so many of City’s recent opponents, including Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. They respected City but refused to bow down. They refused to be treated as inferiors.
The possession statistics still showed City had 74% of the ball but from the terraces, it did not feel that way. Palace were always in this game, rarely pinned back, rarely on the brink.
After Rafa Benitez’s meek surrender in the week, Palace resisted City’s psychological grip, remembering they have virtues of their own to demonstrate in a football match.
Zaha had the beating of Pep Guardiola’s defence from the first whistle to the last on Sunday
Milivojevic sees his penalty saved in front of the Holmesdale Road end at Selhurst Park
Roy Hodgson’s team pressed coherently with ambition but they also mastered the basics, anticipating danger and filling in the spaces where City’s intricate talents so often shine.
Hodgson also had no shame in posing City some old-fashioned questions, going direct every so often, testing Eliaquim Mangala’s nerves and teasing Ederson into one of his haphazard dashes out of the penalty area.
Yet so often Zaha acted as the spark that troubled City. Zaha is enjoying a renaissance under Hodgson, spearheading Palace’s front three on their counter-punches and carrying their survival hopes on his broad shoulders. Hodgson’s training ground work and Zaha’s on-field joie de vivre have offered Palace a fighting chance.
Zaha does not always produce but he is a delight to watch, embracing this almighty challenge with a smile. There are suggestions grander clubs than Crystal Palace may come calling but Zaha should resist the overtures, at least until the summer.
Manager Roy Hodgson needs to keep hold of star man Zaha at least until the end of the season
Zaha had no real chances of his own, but he set up Andros Townsend for a gilt-edged chance
Zaha is now 25 and in the form of his life but at Palace he is the main man. At this stage, he is still to provide the devastating consistency that would be required to earn a regular starting place in an established top six team.
That time may come but for now, he still needs to add more goals to his game. For all his terrific efforts and approach play this season, Zaha should have more than four goals to his name.
Here, he did not have opportunities of his own but he did create the game’s best chance, winning a free-kick from Mangala, taking it quickly and crossing for Andros Townsend. Townsend spurned the gilt-edged chance, blazing over, and then Milivojevic failed to benefit from Zaha’s ingenuity.
City’s unbeaten run lived on – but no individual player this season has offered Guardiola a greater fright.