Monday 19 March 2018

Smalling may be fit to face boyhood club

Chris Smalling is hoping to make Manchester United's clash with Arsenal. Photo: PA
Chris Smalling is hoping to make Manchester United's clash with Arsenal. Photo: PA

Simon Peach

Chris Smalling is hoping to be fit for Manchester United's clash with boyhood club Arsenal. The 26-year-old has been one of the few bright spots in a bleak season at Old Trafford, making him a genuine challenger for David de Gea's player of the season mantle.

Smalling has been a mainstay in Louis van Gaal's side and Thursday's 5-1 defeat of FC Midtjylland in the Europa League was just the second match he has missed all campaign.

The defender is hoping to avoid a third absence when Arsenal arrive today, having made good progress on a shoulder complaint sustained in Monday's FA Cup win at Shrewsbury.

"Touch wood, that carries on," Smalling said, when asked about his impressive United displays. "I was disappointed to miss the other night, but I'm hoping to be OK to play this game.

"I've not really done anything differently to the other lads but, probably from about halfway through last season, I got on a good run in the team and I've just tried to carry that on from there."

Smalling will be well aware how vital victory is against title-chasing Arsenal if United want to keep their faint top-four hopes alive, with rivals Manchester City currently six points better off.

The England defender fondly recalled the remarkable 8-2 defeat of the Gunners in 2011 and last season's 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium ahead of today's match, although their last meeting brought with it United's most comprehensive loss of the season.

Alexis Sanchez's brace was complemented by a Mesut Ozil strike as Arsene Wenger's side blew away United in the first half of October's meeting, running out 3-0 victors in north London.

However, Smalling believes they have normally "done quite well" in a fixture he cares about more than most, having grown up supporting the Gunners.

Smalling's return would be a timely boost to a United side already without a string of injured first-team players, varying from Wayne Rooney to Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Phil Jones to Marouane Fellaini.

Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia are stepping up their returns but will not be ready to start today, when a hamstring complaint could again see Anthony Martial replaced by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford.

One player Van Gaal is expecting to be able to call upon is goalkeeper De Gea, having missed the last three matches with a knee injury.

"I expect (David can return) because I saw the way he was today," Van Gaal said after Thursday's match.

"Chris is a question mark, but you never know."

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