Chris Smalling targets Premier League return for Manchester United at Villa
Manchester United defender hoping to start against Aston Villa after ending six months on the sidelines with full 90 minutes against Braga
Agence France-Presse in London
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 today.
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 night 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 start 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 (HK$123.8 million).
"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 tomorrow, United have a chance to give themselves some breathing space, for 24 hours at least.
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 midweek, 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."
Elsewhere, Arsene Wenger has restated his desire to keep Theo Walcott at Arsenal ahead of the visit of Fulham to the Emirates Stadium today.
Walcott has so far failed to reach agreement with the club about a new contract and is set to become a free agent next summer unless a deal can be struck.
The winger provided a timely reminder of his value when he scored the opening goal in Arsenal's 2-2 Champions League draw with Schalke this week, taking his tally to eight goals for the season.
It was Walcott's first start in the Premier League or Champions League for two months, and should guarantee his inclusion in the starting line-up against Martin Jol's Fulham.
The Arsenal manager has made it clear he will do everything he can to keep the England international at the club.
"My desire is to keep Theo. We do what's needed to keep him and hopefully, [as] I told you many times, we can sort this situation out very soon," Wenger said. "Very soon is before the end of December - one way or another, that is for sure. I don't want to go into any details, but you can believe me [that] we do the maximum we can to keep our best players."
Wenger concedes that his side face a testing challenge against an in-form Fulham side as they attempt to get their league campaign back on track.
An impressive start to the season has given way to an indifferent run that has threatened their progress in the Premier League and in Europe, and Wenger admits his side's home form must improve.
He said: "We had one or two flat games at home, I agree. Especially the game against Schalke [a 2-0 loss], even the game against QPR [a 1-0 win]."