Date: 18th October 2012 at 6:01pm
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It seems Manchester United cannot go a season without a defensive crisis these days.

From a Carrick-Vidic centre-back partnership to having Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans as our only two fit central pair, we haven’t had it easy.

But hopefully that is about to change, withChris Smalling’s imminent return from injury providing the defence with a much-needed boost.

Smalling looks set to be involved against Stoke this weekend, after five months out with, initially a groin injury, and then a broken foot.

It is no surprise that we have kept only three clean sheets this season. Two of them were quite fortunate – against Newcastle and Galatasaray – and the other was at home to Wigan.

Admittedly, lack of protection from the midfield and full-backs has too often left our defence exposed and while I am not expecting an instant run of shut-outs now that Smalling is back, the 22-year-old certainly has become a big player for us.

He has gone from strength to strength since joining United in 2010 and I have to say, while his potential was undoubted, I did not see him as a mainstay in the defence for years to come.

Unfortunately that is still the case with some Reds, but I have seen the error of my ways. While Phil Jones is the more obvious favourite, with his gung-ho style and attacking attributes, Smalling is more of a natural defender.

He reads the game astonishingly well for someone who was playing non-league football four years ago and he is dominant in the air. On top of that he is technically very good and can play just as well at right-back.

While the ‘demise’ of Rio Ferdinand has been hugely over-exaggerated by the media and fans alike, Smalling’s return will alleviate pressure on the current centre-backs and give Sir Alex the option of rotating and resting players.

Also, while I couldn’t really care less about England these days, it shouldn’t be too long before Smalling is a regular at international level too. He was starting to stake a claim last season, before injury ruined his hopes of going to Euro 2012.

This is nowhere near a make-or-break season for Smalling, as his talent is undeniable, but maybe it will be the season he makes himself a guaranteed starter for both club and country.