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Will Tidey - Smalling could give Ferguson a big decision to make

Published: 24 Feb 2011 - 07:06:22

It's been a curious campaign for Manchester United's class of 2010-11. They're far from a Sir Alex Ferguson vintage, but we arrive in the middle of February with them very much alive in the three competitions you might call The Treble.

On paper it doesn't make sense. When you compare this team to the Champions League winners of 2008 they're Manchester United Lite.

Nani continues to improve, but he's still a huge step-over short of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are both three years further away from their prime and Wayne Rooney, despite a slight resurgence of late, has been a pale imitation of the player who scored 18 times and laid on a hatful in the 2007-08 season.

You could argue the same is true of Rio Ferdinand, whose injury problems continue to thwart his return to the player we know he can be.

United have still managed to hit some high notes, not least in the Dimitar Berbatov-inspired demolitions of Blackburn and Birmingham City, but largely speaking they've been less than convincing.

Last night's scoreless draw in Marseille was a case in point. Ferguson's team never really found their tempo and while they enjoyed some good possession, there was a distinct lack of inspiration in the final third. In previous incarnations United have soared away in Europe, but last night they flapped furiously.

But still they came away with a good result. And still they are favourites the progress to the quarter-finals.

If they do much credit will go to Chris Smalling, the defender Ferguson signed for £12 million and whose reputation is moving in the opposite direction of the likes of Rooney and Ferdinand.

Smalling was the model of composure in the heaving Stade Velodrome. The 21-year-old was making just his fifth Champions League start, but he looked every bit the seasoned campaigner.

Commanding in the air and cultured on the ball, Smalling is unsurprisingly being touted as the natural heir to Ferdinand alongside Nemanja Vidic.

He was equally impressive in the recent Manchester derby and in the home and away meetings with Rangers - which tells you he is player of fine focus and cool temperament.

And when you consider United have not conceded a goal in the five Champions League games Smalling has started this season, he clearly has the game for Europe. You could say he's Ferguson's Jack Wilshere.

Perhaps we've all been looking in the wrong areas. Maybe it's not United's midfield dynamism or their attacking prowess that hold the key to their success this season - it's their defence.

The big question now is what Ferguson will do when Ferdinand returns to fitness. Because there's a growing argument that the England captain is currently the third best central defender at Old Trafford.

FOLLOW WILL ON TWITTER

DSG


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FOOTBALL.CO.UK BLOGGER:Will Tidey
Will Tidey writes on sport for CNN, Eurosport-Yahoo! and Bleacher Report, amongst others. His first book, 'Life with Sir Alex', an account of Sir Alex Ferguson's 25-year reign at Manchester United, is set for release in October this year. Pre-order it now at http://tinyurl.com/6xzl62b. And follow Will on Twitter here - www.twitter.com/willtidey

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