Chris Smalling will again deputise for Rio Ferdinand on Sunday as United travel to Anfield to face Liverpool. And Wes Brown is likely to come in for the suspended Nemanja Vidic.
Travelling to Liverpool without Ferdinand and Vidic would once have been viewed as a disaster. But the landscape has changed somewhat and that's largely down to the excellent recent form and rapidly maturing performances of Chris Smalling.
Whether in his first Manchester derby or a Champions League last 16 away tie, Smalling has risen to the challenges set in front of him. Sir Alex Ferguson is certainly delighted with the 21-year-old's timely progress.
“We are very pleased with his performances,” the boss told Inside United magazine. “It’s an outstanding contribution he has made. But, do you know, I expected him to do well. I had no doubts about him.
“He’s done really well for us and he is improving all the time. He is developing all aspects of his game because he wants to learn and improve. He likes defending, he enjoys it. So he’s a real bonus.
“We started him against City with Rio being out and it’s not easy coming in for your first derby at 21 years of age, having only been with us nine months. But I thought he would do well.”
The experience Smalling is gaining now will be invaluable to his future. And there is little doubting that there will be many more big matches to come. On Sunday Smalling will be paired with Wes Brown at the heart of United’s defence, but his future sidekick will be Jonny Evans, another young defender in whom Sir Alex holds great faith.
Together they will become the new Ferdinand-Vidic axis. “That’s the way I look upon it,” says the boss. “They’re young, but Evans for example has already played a lot of games for us. He played almost three quarters of the matches last season. He is well grounded in terms of what’s needed here. His time will come.”
The defensive partnership is a bedrock of teams built by Sir Alex. Although the formula isn’t always easy to find, the United boss is now adept at combining classy ball-playing