“Mike” to “Smalldini” – Chris Smalling rebirth asks uncomfortable Man Utd question

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Chris Smalling was ditched by Manchester United but his career has blossomed at Roma while Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones have struggled at Old Trafford

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Jose Mourinho interrupted by Roma stars celebrating Conference win

Towards the end of his time at Manchester United, Chris Smalling unwittingly became a figure of fun.

Former United boss Louis van Gaal famously referred to him as ‘Mike Smalling’, a slip of the tongue which led to an unwanted nickname the defender was unable to shake off. Fast forward seven years since van Gaal’s gaffe and it is Smalling, now excelling in Italy with Serie A side Roma, who has had the last laugh.

While United’s trophy drought stretched to five years on the back of their worst-ever Premier League campaign, Smalling is a European champion with Roma. The 32-year-old was voted man-of-the-match in Roma’s 1-0 Europa Conference Final win over Feyenoord in Albania on Wednesday, which secured entry to next season’s Europa League for Jose Mourinho’s side.

There, former United boss Mourinho and ex-defender Smalling may end up facing their old club, with Smalling having proved there is life after Old Trafford with his rejuvenated career. Smalling produced some vital blocks and was a commanding presence throughout the game as Roma emerged triumphant in Tirana, despite a second-half barrage from their Dutch opponents.

The defender’s formidable display at the back saw him dubbed ‘Smalldini’ on social media, a favorable comparison to legendary Italian and AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini. After such a heroic performance, many United fans will legitimately wonder why Smalling, sold to Roma for £ 13million in October 2020 – was offloaded so swiftly, when his successors – £ 80m captain Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof in particular – have been so unconvincing.

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It says everything about Smalling’s rebirth in the Italian capital that the center-back, who won two Premier League titles, the FA Cup and League Cup at United, rates the Europa Conference triumph as up there with those successes. “This is the most passionate and intense trophy win for me,” Smalling said.







Chris Smalling celebrates with the Europa Conference trophy – one more trophy that Man Utd have managed in the last five years
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Image:

Tullio Puglia – UEFA / UEFA via Getty Images)

“The most important trophy is always the last one and I haven’t won for a couple of years. Last season was frustrating for me because I fought so hard to get here permanently and then a week later had a knee injury I just could not shake all season. Luckily, this season I’ve been able to contribute, and that’s all I want to do, I want to help this club and contribute to the fans, because we have a great city that just wants to win. “

Smalling, who earned 31 caps, last played for England in 2017, under Gareth Southgate, who has since overlooked him. Asked if he felt he could force his way back into Southgate’s squad for the World Cup, Smalling said he would love to represent his country again, but does not expect a recall.

“I would never close the door on something like that,” Smalling said. “But, at the minute, I’m clearly not in Gareth’s plans. Equally, I’ll just focus on playing my games, but I would never close the door on such an opportunity. “

Inspired by his former model wife Sam, who is now a photographer, Smalling became a vegan, which the defender credits with improving his health, fitness and recovery time from injury. Smalling and his family are settled in Rome, despite being the victims of a break-in at their home last month, when armed intruders stole luxury watches and jewelery in an early-morning raid.

With one year left on his current deal with Roma, Smalling said he is willing to stay beyond then if Mourinho wants him to commit longer-term. “I still have a contract,” Smalling said. “Providing Jose still wants me, I’m right here.”

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