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Smalling eager to grab United chance

Chris Smalling is determined to seize every opportunity to prove he is worthy of a Manchester United first team place.

Smalling capped an excellent first half-season at Old Trafford following his surprise move from Fulham by claiming man-of-the-match honours in last night's win over Stoke.

Despite making his first Premier League start, the 21-year-old performed with admirable maturity in subduing a powerful Stoke front line.

Predictably, Sir Alex Ferguson led the praise for a youngster who, less than three years ago, was playing in the non-league for home town club Maidstone.

But, after starting seven times earlier in the season, including four in the Champions League, Smalling has found more recent appearances restricted, partly due to United having two matches postponed, but also as the importance of the games themselves increases.

Given the Red Devils' next two games are against Liverpool and Tottenham, Smalling knows he could be consigned to another short spell on the sidelines.

However, whilst the England Under-21 star accepts his fate for now, he is keen to impress Ferguson enough to come into consideration as more than just a mere deputy to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.

"It is nice to hear some positive words from the manager," he said.

"At the start of the season I got to play every other week but I haven't had a game for the last few weeks. Hopefully I can make my presence felt and get many more.

"For the time being, it is all about concentration and consistency.

"That will improve the more I play. I know Vida and Rio are the first choices, I just have to make sure I do equally well when I come in, so I know I am playing my part."

Ferguson might not always have got it right in the transfer market, and there are still plenty of question marks over Bebe, the winger who was signed on a hunch after a meteoric rise through the Portuguese league, but as Smalling represents one-third of last summer's business, and Javier Hernandez another 33pc, the United boss can be quite pleased with himself.

Hernandez took his seasonal tally to nine with an outstanding opener at Old Trafford last night and has already produced performances that have earned him hero status amongst the club's legion of supporters.

The first Mexican to play for United might shy away from comparisons with club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the ease with which he has settled into English life is impressive, as are his skills on the training ground.

"Chicharito is dangerous," said Smalling, of the forward known back home by his nickname, Little Pea.

"Even in six-a-sides during training he can be a nightmare to mark.

"You have to keep your wits about you because he can come from left or right. He really deserved his goal."

For the majority, still scratching their heads as to how this United outfit, supposedly so inferior to Ferguson teams of the past, can find themselves in such a superior position in the table, the answer probably lies in the contribution of men such as Hernandez and Park Ji-sung, now on Asian Cup duty with South Korea but scorer of vital goals earlier in the campaign.

So, United have reached the 20-game mark unbeaten and ready to resume their quest for a record 19th championship at Tottenham on January 16 knowing they have managed to gain some breathing space over their rivals, who have failed to keep pace.

"When you look at how Chelsea started the season, firing on all cylinders, it is credit to us that we are where we are," said Smalling.

"Hopefully we don't have that dip and we can keep going strong.

"The thing is, we keep winning, we are unbeaten and we are looking down on everyone else.

"We need to keep picking up points, as we have done over this Christmas period in particular. To come out with 10 points from four games is pretty good.

"Overall, everyone in the changing room is really happy with the way things are going. Long may that continue."

PA Media