Chris Smalling is a figure of fun but Manchester United defender will have last laugh if form earns him World Cup spot

Matt Jones 12/03/2018
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Chris Smalling was excellent in Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Liverpool.

Chris Smalling is often seen as a comedic figure around Old Trafford, a subject for derision and fodder for bar room bickering.

This criticism is not without merit, with Manchester United fans right to feel they are sometimes watching a comedy of errors when Smalling is in the side.

Defeat to Newcastle a few weeks ago and the 2-2 draw with Leicester at the end of 2017 stand out for Red Devils fans.

Smalling was booked for diving against the Magpies a month ago which in turn led to Matt Ritchie’s winner.

The 28-year-old injured his groin towards the end of the 2-2 draw with the Foxes two days before Christmas but was sent back on as Jose Mourinho had made all three of his substitutions – he was subsequently at fault as Harry Maguire ghosted in to equalise for the 10-man hosts.

Smalling was slammed. In fact, whenever he makes a mistake, he receives significant abuse – most of it from his own fans.

Ironically, his more impressive displays are buried, while his consistency this season has gone almost totally unnoticed.

After suffering the ignominy of that yellow card against Newcastle, he remained in the spotlight rather than being withdrawn to the sanctuary of the shadows by Mourinho. And he’s been excellent in a subsequent unbeaten five match run, including four wins, against Huddersfield, Sevilla, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.

Smalling has been superb since being singled out for scorn in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.

Smalling has been superb since being singled out for scorn in a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle.

In that sequence, a crucial period of the season, United have reached the FA Cup quarter-finals, are favourites to reach the last eight of the Champions League and have beaten two of their biggest rivals to all but guarantee a top-four Premier League finish.

Smalling has been the Red Devils’ only ever present centre-back during this vital run. He’s gone from sinner to saint, yet he’s unlikely to ever get the credit he deserves.

Much of that is down to the fact he’s struggled for consistency throughout his United career, while he’ll never be remembered as one of the elite players at his position.

But you only have to look at his stats this season to see how much he stands out.

Smalling ranks first among Premier League top six sides’ centre-backs for clearances (21st overall), second in shots blocked (13th overall), third for interceptions (10th overall), fourth in aerial duels won (16th overall) and seventh in tackles (18th overall).

In a United defence that has lacked a true identity and a cohesive central partnership all season, and relied heavily upon David De Gea’s brilliance, Smalling has been the standout.

He may never be revered among the ilk of Franco Baresi or Franz Beckenbauer. He’s won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as celebrated club heroes Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic.

Yet when you consider Smalling rose from the non-league ranks with Maidstone United to England’s elite, can he really be condemned for the fact he’s never realistically going to be part of a discussion about world-class defenders?

It seems he will be in the discussion, however, between England manager Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff when they come to select a squad for upcoming friendlies with the Netherlands and Italy.

It’s been suggested Southgate will recall Smalling after a commanding display in victory against Liverpool on Saturday and silencing an attack that has cut teams to shreds this season – and particularly keeping Player of the Year in waiting Mohamed Salah deathly quiet.

He’s a continuous source of hilarity for fans of other clubs, even his own.

Yet if Smalling’s form continues and is deservedly rewarded with a place in England’s 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup, it will be he who laughs last.

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Man United v Sevilla talking points as defining tests start now for Jose Mourinho

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Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho preparing for the visit of Sevilla.

Buoyed by remarkable victories in the Premier League, Manchester United now turn their attentions to European matters.

On Tuesday, La Liga’s Sevilla stand in the way of progression to the Champions League’s quarter-finals. There was nothing to separate the teams three weeks ago during a goalless opening leg in Andalusia, in which the hosts did all the running.

Here are the talking points:

CUPS ARE NOW KEY

With the battle for second spot in the Premier League sewn up in memorable fashion by Mourinho since the stalemate at Sevilla, the serious business of adding silverware awaits.

A trio of epic victories have seen the ‘Special One’ live up to his storied billing in the meantime. Substitute Jesse Lingard earned the 2-1 win triumph against Chelsea, a change of shape saw United come from 2-0 down to beat Crystal Palace 3-2 and he outwitted ‘gegenpressing’ opposite number Jurgen Klopp and ruthlessly exposed Liverpool’s weaknesses in Saturday’s commanding 2-1 victory.

Defining ties will be played in the next five days.

Overcome Sevilla and United are back in the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2013/14. Beat Brighton on Saturday and a run to a record-equalling 13th FA Cup for the Red Devils opens up.

A Europa League and League Cup double salvaged a disappointing debut campaign. These upcoming games will help define 2017/18’s ultimate success.

Jose Mourinho in buoyant mood after May's Europa League triumph.

Jose Mourinho in buoyant mood after May’s Europa League triumph.

ALL GUNS MUST FIRE

The totems of the Red Devils’ present and future continue to endure contrasting fortunes.

Local boy Marcus Rashford reinforced his ‘wunderkind’ reputation with a fantastic brace in the weekend’s defeat of bitter rivals Liverpool. This continues the 20-year-old’s renaissance since a lively cameo at Sevilla.

He transformed the match at Selhurst Park. A double at the weekend came upon his first top-flight start since December 30.

Yet in the same game, superstar January addition Alexis Sanchez’s struggles to find his spot continued.

Utilised behind the excellent Romelu Lukaku, the Chile forward had zero shots and just two key passes. It is now 523 minutes since his last – and only – United goal.

A grandstand performance is long delayed.

STATS ARE NO SOLACE

Sevilla fans have ridden a rollercoaster this season.

It is almost impossible to predict how Vincenzo Montella’s men will fare at Old Trafford. Their form guide in La Liga since performing so well in the scoreless first leg reads; a 5-2 hammering at home by Atletico Madrid, a forgettable 1-0 home win at bottom-placed Malaga, a 2-0 victory against mid-table Athletic Bilbao and then being put to the sword by a Geoffrey Kondogbia-inspired Valencia by the reverse scoreline.

For a man who dislikes nuance, this unpredictability will unsettle Mourinho. So will United’s record of just two wins from their last 12 games against Spanish opposition.

Sevilla have not won on six trips to England, or previously progressed past the Champions League’s round of 16.

Yet a repeat of September’s 2-2 draw at Liverpool will send them through, plus they’ve lost only two of their last 11 away matches in Europe. A tricky test awaits.

Sevilla's Argentinian midfielder Joaquin Correa celebrates with team-mates after scoring in September's 2-2 draw at Liverpool.

Sevilla’s Argentinian midfielder Joaquin Correa celebrates with team-mates after scoring in September’s 2-2 draw at Liverpool.

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Paul Pogba misses Man United training ahead of Sevilla tie

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Paul Pogba was not present at Manchester United training ahead of their crunch Champions League clash against Sevilla on Tuesday.

The French midfielder was sidelined for the 2-1 Premier League victory over Liverpool at the weekend after sustaining an injury on the eve of the match.

United manager Jose Mourinho revealed Pogba was a doubt for the last-16 second-leg encounter against Sevilla and the club-record signing was absent from Monday morning’s training session.

Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Ander Herrera were also missing but Anthony Martial and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were in attendance.

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