On a night where Manchester United could ill afford to drop points, the Red Devils stood up to be counted and kick-started their Champions League campaign.
A 2-1 home win against a well organised, counter-attacking Wolfsburg side gave the Old Trafford club their first three points in Group B – on a night where both Manchester clubs restored some pride for English teams in Europe.
Confidence is high at United after three straight wins before tonight’s game and the victory, courtesy of goals from Juan Mata and Chris Smalling, will only add to the growing belief at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
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It may just be whispers at the moment, but the belief is starting to grow that Louis van Gaal’s men can mount a serious title challenge this season – maybe even go on to lift the Premier League trophy come May 15.
If they are to stand any chance of winning their 14th title as well as make a splash in Europe, one player who the Red Devils cannot afford to lose is the match winner himself - Chris Smalling.
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The turnaround in fortunes for the England international since the arrival of Van Gaal has been quite extraordinary and he continued his fantastic run of form by marshalling the backline against spirited German opposition.
Despite Antonio Valencia’s woeful positioning for Daniel Caligiuri’s opener after five minutes, the Manchester United defence stood firm tonight and rarely looked like conceding a leveller once the former Fulham man gave them the lead after 53 minutes.
Under David Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson, the central defender was lambasted and many believed he was never going to make the grade at Old Trafford.
But how times change – the 25-year-old is not only Manchester United’s best defender, but he is one of the best players in the Premier League – arguably the top central defender for his country.
His leadership of the back four, especially in the final 20 minutes, when Die Wolfe began to pile on the pressure, only proved to showcase his immense improvement under the Dutch manager.
At 25, Smalling is entering the prime years of his career and will only improve as he continues to mature.
Gone are the days of rash challenges and poor decisions. That Chris Smalling has been replaced by a more streetwise, composed and mature individual.
His partnership with Daley Blind is blossoming and could go on to produce some wonderful moments for the Red Devils, with Smalling taking to the role of ‘enforcer’ like a duck to water.
Wayne Rooney is the obvious leader for the 20-time champions, but Smalling’s leadership is emerging and one day there is no doubt he will be the next Manchester United captain.
On a mild September evening at Old Trafford, special mention has to go to the player who created Smalling’s winner – the Spanish maestro, Juan Mata.
The former Chelsea man produced a fine display and was at the heart of everything positive about the Red Devils’ forward play tonight. His sumptuous backheel to play Smalling through was the icing on the cake.
Many will argue that his best position is behind the centre-forward, but he appears to be growing into the right wing position – where he is allowed the freedom to roam inside.
His performance tonight capped off a terrific week in his United career after a star performance in the 3-0 drubbing of Sunderland last weekend.
Things are definitely looking up for Louis van Gaal and his men, but tougher tests are on the horizon. However, if Mata and Smalling can produce similar levels of performances as they did tonight, the Red Devils have no-one to fear.
Do you think Chris Smalling has the ability to be Manchester United's next captain? Have your say in the comments section below!
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