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Big Test Awaits For Smalling

With press reports yesterday morning suggesting that Manchester United centre back Rio Ferdinand could be out for up to a month with a calf strain, the pressure is on young Chris Smalling as he looks set to play in a number of crucial games in the next few weeks.

With Sir Alex Ferguson seemingly placing Smalling as Ferdinand’s like-for-like replacement and Jonny Evans as Nemanja Vidic’s, the 21-year-old Englishman is the more likely to step in to the first team for the much anticipated Manchester derby on Saturday. It marks the start of an important few weeks for the club as they head to Marseille in the 1st round of the Champions League Knockout Phase and face their toughest away trips of the season against Chelsea and Liverpool. It is hoped that Ferdinand would be back fit for the latter two matches, but the England captain’s recent injury record means there will be some doubt as to his recovery time.

Smalling, a £10million signing from Fulham in the summer, has performed admirably in his performances for United so far this season but has yet to face a stern test of his defensive capabilities. A cool and calm defender, much like Ferdinand, Smalling has so far mainly showed his passing and aerial ability without having to over-exert himself with tackling and blocking. The attacking talent at City’s disposal should give a solid barometer for his ability to deal with the pressure of such a high-octane contest. Nonetheless, his form was rewarded with a first call-up to the senior national team for the friendly with France in November, although you suspect that manager Fabio Capello was more interested in taking a first-hand look at Smalling than using him on the pitch.

Sir Alex has this week shown how desperate he is for no more defensive injuries by their lack of action in the midweek internationals. Smalling and Jonny Evans pulled out of the England Under-21 and Northern Ireland squads respectively, with ‘injuries’ that sound to this observer more like orders from the boss. Meanwhile, Nemanja Vidic was rested from Serbia’s international after Ferguson brokered a deal with the Serbian FA, something rarely heard of, indicating the importance of having a fit back-line ahead of the next period of games. The manager would also have been delighted that Patrice Evra was not called up by France despite his disciplinary ban being over, while exciting right-back Rafael was an unused substitute in Brazil’s 1-0 defeat to Evra’s team.

Of course, Fergie may well go with the more experienced Evans as Ferdinand’s replacement. The 23-year-old has partnered Vidic at the back on many occasions and has played (and performed) in big games. But this season’s game against Liverpool aside, he has been off-form for a good year. Smalling had seemed to jump ahead of Evans in the pecking order, but when Vidic was ruled out of the aforementioned game with Liverpool, it was Evans who came in, and since then Fergie seems to have decided which of the two would play based on who they were replacing.

In fact, Smalling’s possible entry into the big time is similar to that of Evans’. The man from Belfast was thrown into the action for his league debut against Chelsea and performed brilliantly, leading to him replacing Wes Brown as third choice centre back and creating a burgeoning reputation for himself. If picked on Saturday and in the subsequent weeks, Smalling will be hoping for a similarly successful run in the team until his mentor Ferdinand returns.

Do you think Smalling has what it takes to replace Ferdinand for these big games? Or should Jonny Evans come in? Leave your comments below.

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