Smalling sets sights on Villa return
Chris Smalling says he is anxious to make up for lost time as he targets a Premier League return for leaders Manchester United at Aston Villa on Saturday.
The England international defender made his first competitive appearance for six months as Alex Ferguson's side came from behind to defeat Braga 3-1 in Portugal on Wednesday to seal a place in the Champions League knockout phase.
Now the 22-year-old, who emerged unscathed from a full 90-minute outing, is eager to return to domestic action, and has set his sights on a starting place against struggling Villa after putting his injury troubles behind him.
Smalling has described missing the start of the season with a broken metatarsal as one of his most frustrating spells since joining United from Fulham in the summer of 2010 for £10 million ($16 million, 12.5 million euros).
"It was a really frustrating time for me, especially over the summer when I had to work hard while the lads were on pre-season, and then had a breakdown again," he said.
"I had been looking at this period of October and November for being able to come back and make an impact. I've been able to train over this last week or so and I feel ready.
"I'm hoping I can stay away from injuries now because I think I'm due that. I had a clash of heads during the match (against Braga) but I was fine after about five minutes.
"I feel good after playing the game, so bring on Saturday."
United, pipped to the title by neighbours Manchester City on the final day of last season, will open up a four-point lead at the top of the table if they win at Villa, who start the weekend one place above the relegation zone with nine points from 10 games.
Ferguson's side have won eight of their last nine league games and with second-placed Chelsea and third-placed Manchester City not in action until Sunday, United have a chance to give themselves some breathing space.
Smalling could start in place of Jonny Evans, who had to be replaced by Rio Ferdinand against Braga after suffering a groin injury.
Nani, who started in Portugal in mid-week, is also a doubt with a hamstring problem.
"Jonny felt his groin a little bit and as a precaution we took him off quickly," said United assistant manager Mike Phelan.
"With Nani, I think it was probably just a lack of games and his hamstring started to tighten up, so we weren't taking any chances with that."
While Smalling is fighting fit, Aston Villa midfielder Gary Gardner is still working his way back from a second anterior cruciate ligament injury in the space of two years.
But the 20-year-old is delighted with the way his manager Paul Lambert has assembled a squad containing a mix of youth and experience.
"You need older lads in the team to keep it going but the young lads have come in and done fine. They've been brilliant," he said.
"It's all good – the old lads here are brilliant, but I think you do need a mix of both.
"A lot of the players have come through the ranks and we're all together.
"The senior players have taken us under their wing.
"It's good to have a lot of young lads around for the banter but the old lads mix in as well – that's the best part about it."
Gardner should return before Christmas and is keen to impress when given an opportunity again.
"I came on against West Ham so that gives me positive feelings that he (Lambert) likes what he sees in me, so hopefully when I get back I'll get another chance," he added.