Wednesday 26 June 2019

Smalling eyeing success next season

Chris Smalling has been one of the most improved players at Manchester United this season
Chris Smalling has been one of the most improved players at Manchester United this season

Chris Smalling is refusing to celebrate Manchester United's return to the Champions League.

Liverpool's draw at Chelsea last week meant United's one-year absence from the biggest club competition in the world was over.

Cambridge, Stoke and Burnley have been the midweek visitors this season, but next year United will take on the biggest teams in Europe under the lights at Old Trafford - providing they come through a play-off in August.

Smalling does not see that as a cause for celebration, though.

The defender admitted United'a players felt "dejected" after Tyler Blackett's own goal meant their last home match of a difficult season ended with a 1-1 draw against Arsenal.

"All the lads have come in and it's almost as though we've lost the game. Everybody is pretty dejected," he said.

Smalling won the Premier League twice in his first three years at United, so finishing fourth feels like something of a let-down.

"No, it's not (good enough for United)," the centre-back said after completing a lap of appreciation.

"It's not (a season) where we're massively celebrating, it's a step. Next season we know that won't be good enough.

"Our fans were terrific. Hopefully next season we'll be having a parade with something to really cheer about."

United lost two games in 22 between November and April, but it was their poor start that put paid to any chance of them challenging for top spot.

Louis van Gaal won just three of his opening 10 league games and suffered a humiliating Capital One Cup hammering at the hands of MK Dons in August.

Smalling knows United must hit the ground running next term if they are to have a realistic chance of winning the league for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement.

"As the season's gone on, we've got better, but Chelsea's consistency from day one has won them the title," Smalling said.

"Sometimes they didn't play well and still won games, they saw off games like Sunday's, they would have probably won it 1-0. Next season, it's a case of starting on the front foot and keeping that consistency."

Smalling's form, like United's, has improved as the year has progressed.

The England centre-back is not as error prone, plays with more aggression and is far more comfortable on the ball.

Van Gaal has been so impressed with Smalling that he handed him a new four-year contract last month and the defender captained the side against Arsenal in the absence of Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick.

One man who has failed to kick on is Radamel Falcao. The Colombian striker arrived at Old Trafford with a reputation as one of the most feared marksmen in Europe, but he has scored just four goals in 29 appearances.

Smalling cites injuries and the physicality of the Premier League as the reasons why the former Atletico Madrid striker has not made the impact that was expected of him.

"I think with his record, he's a marked man," Smalling said.

"He gets kicked a lot in every game and that's because of what he's done in the game.

"His training performances have been terrific and on Sunday he was running in behind as the manager wanted. On another day he could have scored a few more goals.

"He's had a couple of injuries on the way, and with every player that means you don't get the consistency of being able to train every week. It affects your flow, especially with strikers who need a run of goals to set them off."

United are unlikely to exercise their option to buy the striker for £43.2million next month.

Smalling thinks the two-time Ballon d'Or nominee will come good again next term, wherever he plays.

"You can see he is getting sharper and sharper and with a good pre-season he'll be firing again next season," he said.

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