It’s not exactly been a smooth start to 2018 for Manchester United.
Accusations of negative football, misuse of club-record signing Paul Pogba and a shock defeat to Newcastle have created something of a dark cloud over Old Trafford heading into the business end of the campaign.
The quality of the Red Devils’ performance against Crystal Palace on Monday night wasn’t hugely encouraging either, but the three-goal comeback at Selhurst Park certainly was – a cathartic, exonerating and inspiring experience, echoing shades of the Ferguson years, that will breed huge belief into this United squad ahead of a run-in that could still end in silverware for Jose Mourinho’s side.
And should United lift the FA Cup or the Champions League title come the summer, they may well look back at last night’s game – and particularly Chris Smalling’s goal to make the scores 2-1 – as a defining moment.
As United recycled a set piece, it was the England international who rose highest to meet an Antonio Valencia cross and put the Red Devils back into the game after conceding twice in the first half.
That epitomised how crucial the 31-cap defender has become for United in recent weeks, particularly amid the absences of Eric Bailly and Phil Jones.
A real warrior of a centre-half, he was a key presence in clean sheets over Huddersfield (twice) and Sevilla while keeping Alvaro Morata quiet in a 2-1 win against Chelsea throughout February, and he started March in equally imperious fashion.
While the 28-year-old failed to prevent Palace scoring twice and often struggled to contain Christian Benteke, he was no doubt United’s most effective defender – and arguably their most effective player overall – ranking first throughout the Red Devils’ line-up for clearances, aerial duels won and tackles, while completing 91% of his passes and having 98 touches of the ball – a return only surpassed by the aforementioned Pogba.
And Mourinho won’t be the only manager to have taken note of Smalling’s influence last night. Gareth Southgate still has some big decisions to make ahead of the World Cup, not least including who should start at the centre of defence for England.
So, Three Lions fans, who is England’s best centre-back at this moment in time? Let us know by voting below…