Chris Smalling excited ahead of ‘high stakes’ FA Cup semi-final
Manchester United meet Tottenham on Saturday for a place in the May showpiece.
Chris Smalling is relishing the “high stakes” FA Cup semi-final clash with Tottenham and believes Wembley glory can be the catalyst for an improved Manchester United trophy charge next season.
Jose Mourinho has secured progress rather than plaudits since taking the reins at Old Trafford.
Europa League, EFL Cup and Community Shield success in his first season was tempered by a sixth-place Premier League finish that is sure to be bettered this term.
United are on course to finish runners-up to champions Manchester City but surprise Champions League and Carabao Cup exits, along with their UEFA Super Cup loss, leaves the FA Cup as the Portuguese’s only shot at silverware.
Standing between them and May’s showpiece are Mauricio Pochettino’s men in a season-defining semi-final at Spurs’ temporary home – a Wembley clash Smalling cannot wait for.
“The games there are always high stakes,” the centre-back told Press Association Sport.
“It’s the build-up and it’s exciting. We have played Tottenham there and we beat them at home, so we have beaten each other.
“I think being able to go back there and have half the stadium filled with red shirts it will definitely affect them.”
Asked if United would consider second spot and the FA Cup as a successful season, Smalling added: “Yes, I think we would.
“That’s been our goal for quite a few weeks now and if we can complete that then I think we would take that and hopefully it will spur us on to make sure we have more of a run at the title (next season).
“We’ve been second for quite a while so that has to be the bare minimum that we can take, and we’ve got a trophy that could only be a couple of games away.”
FA Cup success would make this the third straight campaign that has ended with United winning a major trophy.
Louis van Gaal’s FA Cup triumph in 2016 got the ball rolling, but his prosaic style and underwhelming substance meant the outspoken Dutchman lost his job within days of the final.
Mourinho was charged with bringing back the success that the Old Trafford faithful is accustomed to and Smalling speaks highly of his manager’s approach.
“Obviously last year we picked up a couple of trophies and I think the manager has instilled that in terms of his training preparations,” said the defender, who scored in Wednesday’s 2-0 win at Bournemouth as well as the winner in the recent Manchester derby.
“Be it a little game or even when it’s more of a recovery session, we’ve still got that willingness to win, no matter what.
“I think that’s something the manager brings and we as the players feel that from the coaches and from him himself.
“I think that’s showing by obviously the trophies we won last year and hopefully the trophies that are to come very shortly.”
Smalling says it is “a joy to work with” Mourinho and things certainly seem back on an upward trajectory, even if United do not get too much credit.
“When I joined it was trophies year in, year out,” the long-serving defender said.
“We obviously had a dip and it’s a case of us having to show that consistency.
“It was good to win two trophies last year but if you don’t win a trophy for another two years you don’t really have that consistency.
“We need to keep building that and I think it shows we are a club that is here to stay.”
Smalling has come an awful long way from his days at non-league Maidstone, where his early FA Cup memories were “just trying to qualify”.
Now he is preparing for another Wembley appearance, when he will attempt to keep Spurs’ free-flowing attack at bay and blunt Harry Kane, who is as sharp a spearhead as there is.
“He’s someone who is clearly getting better and better,” Smalling said of his England team-mate.
“I think he’s getting stronger, he seems to have that extra yard of pace and his finishing, he shoots from everywhere and more often than not they go in.
“It’s nice to test yourself against the best.
“I get to train against the best every week and I’ll be looking forward to it.”