Belfast Telegraph

Smalling 'like a United stalwart'

Bryan Robson has paid Chris Smalling a huge compliment by likening his recent performances to those of Paul McGrath and Gary Pallister.

Five years after signing for United, Smalling is yet to convince many United fans he and Phil Jones are suitable long-term replacements for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, who left Old Trafford last summer after long and distinguished careers.

The 25-year-old has been the object of a few taunts, most recently in the Manchester derby last November when he was sent off in the 39th minute.

Smalling, already on a booking, showed a complete lack of composure by hacking down James Milner in the corner to earn his second yellow and United went on to lose 1-0 against a City team that was there for the taking.

Smalling has since shown signs of improvement, though. His commanding performance in last week's 3-0 victory over Tottenham caught Robson's eye and the former United captain thinks that bodes well for Louis van Gaal ahead of Sunday's trip to Anfield.

"Chris is a good defender," Robson told Press Association Sport.

"I have seen him improve over the last few games. I even thought against Arsenal and Newcastle away, his passing was a lot better, a lot crisper, so he has come on to a good game, he is in good form at the moment and that will be important at Liverpool."

Smalling kept 26-goal striker Harry Kane quiet last Sunday and the former Fulham man ventured forward, striding confidently with the ball at his feet on a few occasions.

The end product was not good enough to suggest Van Gaal has a new Beckenbauer in his squad just yet, but Robson was so impressed by Smalling's confidence that he felt moved to liken the centre-back to two United greats in Pallister and McGrath.

The former lifted 10 trophies at United and the latter would have won much more than the 1985 FA Cup had he not fought a long-running battle with alcoholism which eventually cost him his place at the club.

"Paul McGrath could do that and so could Gary Pallister," Robson said when invited to liken Smalling's display to a figure from the past.

"When you keep possession at the back sometimes it's really important that your defenders break past the forwards and they get into the midfield area.

"That means one of your midfield players should be able to get space and I thought Chris did that particularly well against Tottenham and that made it difficult for the Tottenham players."

Smalling seemed pleased to be compared to two defensive stalwarts of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.

"It's a great feeling know that people are taking notice," Smalling said.

"I am just hoping I can keep it up and keep a good run and contribute to our results."

Smalling will have to be at his very best again on Sunday at Anfield.

Van Gaal has warned the centre-back - and the rest of his team-mates - they must not get sent off in this volatile fixture.

As well as pride and bragging rights, a place in the top four is at stake.

Liverpool have not lost since they fell 3-0 at Old Trafford in December and a victory for the hosts would move them above United into fourth for the first time since August.

Robson thinks victory against Liverpool would deliver a significant blow to the Reds' top-four hopes and is not ruling out a second-place finish for United, who trail City by just two points after their loss at Burnley last weekend.

"Yes, (second) is a realistic target," the former United captain said.

"We have to play City and Arsenal at home and if we beat both of them all of a sudden your points tally is looking really good.

"When you talk about the top teams it seems as if you look at it like you are going to get beat all the time and the lads have proven that they can perform really well against a top team like Tottenham.

"And a win at Liverpool at this stage of the season would be a fantastic result for us."

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From Belfast Telegraph