Manchester United defender Chris Smalling is desperate to overcome injury in time to face boyhood club Arsenal on Sunday.
The 26-year-old has been one of the few bright spots in a bleak season at Old Trafford, making him a genuine challenger for David de Gea’s player-of-the-season mantle.
Smalling has been a mainstay in Louis van Gaal’s side and Thursday’s 5-1 defeat of FC Midtjylland in the Europa League was just the second match he has missed all campaign.
The defender is hoping to avoid a third absence when Arsenal arrive in the north west on Sunday, having made good progress on a shoulder complaint sustained in Monday’s FA Cup win at Shrewsbury.
“Touch wood, that carries on,” Smalling said, when asked about his impressive United displays.
“I was disappointed to miss the other night, but I’m hoping to be okay to play this game.
“I’ve not really done anything differently to the other lads but, probably from about halfway through last season, I got on a good run in the team and I’ve just tried to carry that on from there. Long may it continue.”
Smalling will be well aware how vital victory is against title-chasing Arsenal if United want to keep their faint top-four hopes alive, with rivals Manchester City currently six points better off.
The England defender fondly recalled the remarkable 8-2 defeat of the Gunners in 2011 and last season’s 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium ahead of Sunday’s match, although their last meeting brought with it United’s most comprehensive loss of the season.
Alexis Sanchez’s brace was complemented by a Mesut Ozil strike as Arsene Wenger’s side blew away United in the first half of October’s meeting, running out 3-0 victors in north London.
However, Smalling believes they have normally “done quite well” in a fixture he cares about more than most, having grown up supporting the Gunners.
“I always look forward to these games,” Smalling told Sunday’s matchday programme.
“It’s no secret that I was an Arsenal supporter growing up, so this fixture is even bigger for me and especially given it involves two of the biggest teams in the country.
“I hope I can step out onto the field.”
Smalling’s return would be a timely boost to a United side already without a string of injured first-team players, varying from Wayne Rooney to Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Phil Jones to Marouane Fellaini.
Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia are stepping up their returns but will not be ready to start on Sunday, when a hamstring complaint could again see Anthony Martial replaced by 18-year-old Marcus Rashford.
One player Van Gaal is expecting to be able to call upon is goalkeeper De Gea, having missed the last three matches with a knee injury.
“I expect (David can return) because I saw the way he was today,” Van Gaal said after Thursday’s match.
“Chris is a question mark, but you never know.”