Sir Alex Ferguson says Chris Smalling has progressed faster than expected as the Manchester United FC defender prepares to face Olympique de Marseille with his confidence rising.
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Having been plying his trade in non-league football with Maidstone United FC less than three years ago, Manchester United FC's Chris Smalling would not be blamed for pinching himself ahead of Tuesday's UEFA Champions League round of 16 decider against Olympique de Marseille.
The 21-year-old centre-back only joined the Premier League leaders in summer 2010, having agreed the move in January. He has caught the eye ever since, helping United to clean sheets in five of the six UEFA Champions League games he has played in. The most recent of those shutouts was in southern France last month, a 0-0 draw at the Stade Vélodrome setting up an intriguing second instalment at Old Trafford.
"My confidence is going up with every game," said Smalling, an England Under-21 regular who received his first senior call-up for November's 2-1 friendly defeat by France. "I've been fortunate enough to have been playing in big games against big opponents in recent months.
I'm feeling at home in the United defence and I'm just hoping to keep that going."
Nor has Smalling's swift acclimatisation to life at United been lost on his manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. "He's a young lad who's come and featured in Europe and in the league," said Sir Alex. "We brought him as a player for the future, but he's progressed faster than we expected. He enjoys defending, which is very important, and we're delighted with how he's done so far."
The imposing defender played the whole of his team's FA Cup quarter-final win against Arsenal FC on Saturday, a victory which provided the perfect fillip after successive league losses against titleholders Chelsea FC and fierce rivals Liverpool FC.
"It was a difficult week but we were fortunate enough to have another big game on Saturday, get the right result and now we've got another big game tomorrow," said Smalling. "The lads are eager to play in front of the fans at Old Trafford again and hopefully they'll help us get the right result."