Manchester United defender Chris Smalling has highlighted Didier Drogba and Sergio Aguero as the two toughest opponents he's come up against in his career.
The 25-year-old has enjoyed an impressive rise to prominence since moving from Maidstone United to Fulham back in 2008, joining the Red Devils two years later and representing the senior England side for the first time in 2011. He now has 18 international caps to his name.
Smalling is also closing on a landmark 150th competitive appearance for United, and is set to play a pivotal role at the heart of defence for Louis van Gaal after impressing on the opening day of the season.
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Since arriving at Craven Cottage, the versatile centre back has come up against some of the very best in the Premier League, but it's the former Chelsea hitman and current City superstar who really stick in the memory of Smalling.
"When I was at Fulham, probably Didier Drogba in his prime – he was a real handful! Obviously he was big and strong when I played against him last year, but he also had that pace at the time as well," Smalling told the official Manchester United website.
"I think Sergio Aguero is another, with his movement. Drogba is strong and can pin you, but Aguero really doesn’t like to get close to you, so as a centre-back you’re quite worried because you like to feel them and know where they are. He often plays on the shoulder, so it can be quite difficult."
Smalling on the up
Despite having two Premier League winners medals, Smalling has never truly asserted himself as a permanent first choice fixture in the Manchester United side under Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes or Van Gaal.
However, his influence has grown following the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, who formed a formidable combination at the back for United, and he offers plenty for the future after signing a new contract with the club until 2019 at the back end of last season.
Despite the pair limiting his minutes on the pitch, Smalling relished the chance to see Ferdinand and Vidic working in tandem at Old Trafford, and admits he was able to learn plenty as an understudy to the duo.
United's star partnership
"Training was just like a game every time they did it," he added when asked what they taught him.
"I also learnt to take that commanding position, in that you are the voice, eyes and ears for the midfield, so you really need to make sure you take advantage of that.
"I think they utilised the position very well and really helped the squad to keep pushing on. A lot of it was down to those two."
United next face Aston Villa in the Premier League on Friday night, before the first leg of their crucial Champions League qualifying play-off against Club Brugge on Tuesday.
Smalling will expect to feature in both fixtures, especially in the absence of Phil Jones, who is out with thrombosis.
United fans, do you think Smalling has what it takes to become a first-choice centre-back for Van Gaal? Let us know in the comments box below.
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