Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been handed a boost as Chris Smalling closes in on a first-team return.

United have been without Smalling since last season after the England defender suffered a broken foot.

Ferguson has also had to do without fellow England defender Phil Jones and club captain Nemanja Vidic, both of whom have been long-term injury concerns.

But, according to the Daily Mail, Smalling has returned to football work during training with the rest of the Manchester United squad, and has a very slim chance of making the bench for the trip to Newcastle on Sunday afternoon.

The defensive injury crisis has meant Ferguson has struggled with only two fit senior centre-halves, and academy graduate Scott Wootton is in line for a start against Newcastle after Jonny Evans suffered a recurrence of a dead leg.

Vidic is out for at least another six weeks with a knee injury, while Evans could be out for up to 10 days.

With so many defenders out, Manchester United have struggled to keep clean sheets, and Ferguson was left fuming after his side conceded another early goal against Cluj in the Champions League this week.

The United boss branded the goal an 'absolute shocker' after making it clear he wasn't prepared to accept another inept defensive display following their home defeat to Tottenham last weekend.

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