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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 March 2019

Chris Smalling gives Manchester United a reminder of his qualities with commanding performance against Chelsea

English centre-back has struggled for first-team opportunities under Solskjaer but impressed in United's FA Cup win at Stamford Bridge

The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revolution at Manchester United passed defender Chris Smalling by. The 29-year-old defender was either injured or not selected for the Norwegian’s first 10 matches. Few missed him. No fans sang his name and nobody talked excitedly about his return. He is far from United’s most popular player and has been criticised, along with other central-backs, because United’s defence has been too unstable. Few would have complained had he been sold, yet United have never had any intention of selling the player they signed from Fulham for £10 million nine years ago.

Smalling was chosen to start against Fulham on February 9 for his first game under his new boss. In difficult, blustery conditions he looked, understandably, rusty but played a part in his team getting three goals, three points a clean sheet. He started at Chelsea on Monday night too, having been left out against Paris Saint-Germain last week as Solskjaer preferred Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly at the heart of the defence. While both are fast, neither were fast enough to stop Kylian M’Bappe. Who is? It will be interesting to see whether Solskjaer sticks with the same pairing for the second leg in Paris next month.

Smalling wasn’t United’s best player in the 2-0 win against Chelsea, a match played in front of a raucous away end. Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera or Marcus Rashford can compete for that accolade, but nevertheless he had a fine game as United knocked Chelsea out of the FA Cup for the first time in 20 years. It was more remarkable given United were missing Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, the man who had scored both goals in October’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.

Solskjaer got his tactics absolutely right and his players were more confident of victory than at any time recently travelling to Chelsea. That confidence was vindicated, but although the midfielders and attackers have been rightly praised, goalkeeper Sergio Romero was excellent as were the defenders. Right-back Ashley Young limited Eden Hazard, a man rated as the best player in the Premier League by several United players, while Luke Shaw, his opposite full-back, is very good.

Smalling did well too. Alongside the peerless Lindelof and up against Gonzalo Higuain, a man rated as one of the finest strikers in the world, Smalling did what he needed to and dived to make a block from the Argentine as Chelsea tried to get back in the game after half time. Higuain was the first man to score 100 goals in La Liga and Serie A, but he did nothing against United.

Smalling’s positioning was faultless, his awareness too. He is fast and can hold his own physically against any foe, though he admitted that he found Didier Drogba a challenge during the latter's Chelsea days.

United’s defence was seen as the biggest cause of concern at the start of this season. It still is, and questions still need addressing. Is Diogo Dalot ready to become a full-time right-back, and will he be phased in as Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are phased out? Will the club go for another central defender because doubts remain over their existing ones? Probably, but each of those defenders has their value and against Chelsea, Smalling showed that he too can excel at the top level. He wouldn’t be in the first choice of most fans, and even his manager, but United’s success was never built only on the first XI. Squad depth is vital, experience too. Smalling has played over 300 times for United. He played 55 times in 2015/16 and 44 times last season.

Smalling knows his stock, knows what people say about him. He was Jose Mourinho’s favourite centre-back this season, but had to play in ever-changing defensive lineups which didn’t help anyone. United used sixteen different defensive combinations in the first 21 Premier League games this season. He admitted that his confidence dipped under Mourinho, but, as with other players, it’s up under Solskjaer – even if he’s had to play catch up.

If United buy a top-class central defender then they will most likely have to sell one or two already on the books. There have been plenty of times when Smalling has been at the bottom the pecking order, but he did his case no harm with an excellent performance at Stamford Bridge.

Updated: February 19, 2019 04:38 PM

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