The billboard looms at the junction of the South Circular and Streatham Hill, casting a shadow over the gridlock crawling towards Brixton and Tulse Hill. It depicts Wilfried Zaha on the ball, concentration creasing his brow as he prepares to swerve between opponents, the accompanying slogan a boomed "He's just too good for you". Selhurst Park echoes to that chorus these days. "Sometimes I wonder what's going through the defender's head when they're singing that," says the Crystal Palace winger. Crushing humiliation would be a good guess.
Championship full-backs are regularly reduced to gibbering wrecks by the second tier's man of the moment, but Dazet Wilfried Armel Zaha is about to step up a gear. On Saturday night he had celebrated his birthday in London expecting to join up with the England Under-21s before Tuesday's game against Northern Ireland. Instead, after a frantic few hours being convinced he was not jeopardising his chance of representing Ivory Coast, the 20-year-old accepted Roy Hodgson's invitation into the seniors for Wednesday's friendly in Sweden. A car dispatched by the Football Association picked him up from his home in Addiscombe, south London, at 5am. His next step into the unknown was taken bleary eyed but exhilarated.
Zaha has dazzled this season and much of last but is not used to the limelight. He does not comprehend the fuss his form is generating so was taken aback when Didier Drogba telephoned recently to urge him to play for the country of his birth. Speaking to The Guardian it was his innocence that shone through – albeit laced with complete faith in his own ability – with youthful honesty prompting the admission that, having scorched all-comers to date, he needs to be challenged. The seniors should oblige. "I want to come up against defenders who will properly test me," he says. "I'd never look at someone and think he's better than me, unless it's Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. When I get on the pitch it's my time."
The forward's game is about mind-boggling skill and close control, all delivered at searing pace. Manchester United experienced it first-hand in a Carling Cup tie at Old Trafford last December, Fábio da Silva limping away clutching a strained hamstring and a bruised ego. Zaha had expected more of the full-back. "I was so nervous for that game," he says. "But, as we stepped out, I thought I'm obviously here for a reason, so just go out and do what you normally do. I've not really come up against a defender yet where I've thought: 'What can I really do to go past him?'
"We came up against people who have played in the Premier League every week, like Danny Murphy [of Blackburn] the other day. I used to watch him all the time and he's played for years. I know I'm 10 times faster than this guy, so I didn't have to do any trickery. I'd just push it and go past him. I'm not scared coming up against people like that because I've analysed what they do."
So how would he cope with being man-marked by Ashley Cole, a player who has flourished when pitted directly against Ronaldo? "Well, obviously, he's a good defender and he'd want to get tight to me. I like to drift into midfield so, if I do, he won't be able to stick with me. Once I get turned that gives me the chance to do what I do against him. Maybe he'll be able to deal with it but that's when I can test him, isn't it?"
At some stage, potentially with Palace who have sprinted to the top of the Championship, Zaha will tear into top-flight defences with relish. His valuation has escalated over recent months, from the £3.5m Wigan Athletic apparently scoffed at paying in the summer, to the £6m offered by Reading on the eve of the transfer deadline, to the £10m mooted when Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur started scouting him regularly, though the former laid out more on Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain when they boasted no England senior recognition. The Palace co-owner, Steve Parish, has since suggested £20m might not be enough with the club aware the gem in the ranks could propel them into the top tier. The Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson described the scourge of his side as "unplayable" on Saturday, with that a statement of the obvious.
There are myths associated with Zaha but they centre less on how absurdly gifted he is and more on his upbringing in Ivory Coast. The internet suggests he was nurtured at ASEC Mimosas, an academy in Abidjan that developed the likes of Gervinho and Yaya Touré, before moving with his family to England as a teenager. The reality is rather different. Zaha arrived in south London aged four, the eighth of nine children in a family seeking better opportunities, and has never been back to Africa. Life was "never lonely" in a three-bedroom house in Thornton Heath, the siblings spilling out into local parks. It was there alongside his five brothers, and in the Whitehorse Wanderers Sunday side, that he learned his football. "My mum says that, when I was a couple of months old and couldn't even stand up yet, I'd try and kick a ball," he says. "She knew I'd be into football. Maybe I was just destined to do this.
"One of my brothers, Serge, was at a couple of professional clubs on trial, including Palace when they had Ashley Cole on loan. He was a winger, though left-footed, and I learned a lot of my skills from him. My dad had played a bit in Ivory Coast and was always encouraging me. At Whitehorse Wanderers I'd score up to six goals every game. The manager would come and pick me up from my house. Other kids wouldn't get that – they'd have to make their own way – so I knew that, maybe, I was one of the best players in the team. I used to run rings round kids my age. Then Palace spotted me, put me in their under-10s and I've been here ever since.
"I had a hard time in the youth team. Another kid, Nathaniel Pinney [now at Carshalton Athletic], used to bench me all the time and I'd be so depressed. My mum would find me with my head buried in my pillow. She'd say: 'When your time comes, it'll come.' But the stuff that would break my heart was I'd invite all my family to the game, expecting to start after being in the team in training all week, and then I'd be pulled and told: 'You were this close to starting.' I'd have my whole family outside waiting for me to perform but I'd be benched."
That was only three years ago and before an opportunity to excel in an FA Youth Cup run was taken. Zaha has not looked back, the extravagant skills – step-overs, drag-backs, shimmies – he would practise meticulously around the house now transposed on to the pitch. "I used to spend most of my time with a tennis ball doing tricks, little drag-backs and all sorts in my room," he says, conjuring images of the young Don Bradman with a golf ball and cricket stump in his yard in New South Wales. "I'd copy people like Ronaldinho but others I'd try myself to see if I could pull them off.
"I have different tricks. If someone's on my back, I'll stand on the ball and put it in a position where the guy behind me can't see where it is. That gives me a chance to roll him whichever way I want. I'm always thinking ahead before I attempt any skills. If I do a shimmy it's 'this guy might move here, so that gives me the chance to push the ball through there, run past this guy …' I've got a couple of seconds to think and whatever happens after that just happens. This is my moment."
The humiliation he inflicts normally provokes a response. There are the usual threats, that limbs will be splintered if he does not retreat into his shell. "That's typical nonsense but it never actually happens," he says with a shrug. Training with senior professionals, such as his Palace captain Paddy McCarthy, has helped toughen him up. "They'll try to smash me and I expect that from them. Once, with Paddy, I did a double touch – brought it back and tapped it past him – and he just wiped me out but I don't mind. Defenders aren't going to let you mug them off in front of everyone, are they?"
They regularly do not. Zaha's tormenting of Southampton in a cup tie last season infuriated Guly do Prado, a Brazilian not used to the boot being on the other foot. "I went past him and he took me out, grabbed me and said: 'Respect me.' I'm thinking I don't know you, I don't care who you are, so why should I? Against Blackburn, [Colin] Kazim-Richards tried to get into my head. I held him and [Morten Gamst] Pedersen off and he went through me. He said: 'You're going to have to be sharper than that, lad.' I thought: 'Shut up, fool.' It even happens before games now. [The Brighton manager] Gus Poyet said Will Buckley is better than me. What's his problem? I don't see the point of coming out with nonsense like that."
There is recognition within the game of his class. Opponents left scarred tend to request his shirt these days, the Ipswich Town forward Michael Chopra asking Zaha's team-mate, Peter Ramage, to collect the prize after last week's 5-0 drubbing at Selhurst Park. "I played against Chopra on my debut and he didn't know me, didn't care, and now he's asking another player to get my shirt? It seems more people are interested now."
Each donation costs Zaha money for a replacement from the kit man, though that is a price he is willing to pay. Last season's club fines for tardiness, which ended up amounting to £2,000, were more of a bind.
Yet, fresh out of his teens but with 110 senior club games under his belt, he is learning. The Palace academy has forged itself a reputation in recent years and, after seeing Victor Moses score a winner for Chelsea against Shakhtar Donetsk, will now be swollen with pride at Zaha's elevation into the senior England squad. The player still has a choice to make over his long-term international allegiance but he is setting his own sights high. "It's 50:50 because I was born in Ivory Coast but all I know is England," he says. "When the time comes, I'll make a choice. For now, I just want to reach the top. I'm not saying I want to leave Palace but the Premier League's where I want to get to eventually.
"People say look at John Bostock (who left Palace for Tottenham in 2008 and has made four substitute appearances since), but not everyone's the same. At that time, he definitely shouldn't have moved because he was 16 and playing for Palace, then he left for the first club that came in for him. But I've played over 100 games. I've spoken with Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson and they say the Premier League's the place to be. It's where I want to get to and getting there with Palace would be nice. We definitely can with the team we have."
Those are choices to be made in the future. For now, the boy with the billboard has to prove he is good enough to succeed with the seniors.