How much can Chris Smalling help Roma cope defensively at Man Utd?

If there was one comment that raised eyebrows when Manchester United found out they would be playing Roma in the Europa League semi-finals, it was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assertion that the Giallorossi “defend well”.

Those who have watched Roma regularly this season would find it hard to agree. The problems in that department have been clear to see in a recent three-match winless run in Serie A. Solskjaer might be in for a shock if and when he watches any of those games back.

Roma have conceded more goals in the league this season than Genoa, who are 13th in the table. Those statistics are skewed somewhat by the 3-0 walkover defeat to Verona on the opening day, as the team did not actually concede those three goals. But even though they shut out their opponents on the pitch that day, they have rarely looked like doing so in the matches that have followed.

There are explanations for their struggles in their own third. The lack of a clear number one in goal in the first few months of the season may have seeped uncertainty into the back three, for example. But mainly, absences have hit the team hard – not least those of Chris Smalling.

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The former Man Utd defender was among Roma’s best and most reliable players last season. During his loan spell, he proved his quality, winning countless challenges and even growing more comfortable with Paulo Fonseca’s style of building possession from the back.

His form made signing him permanently an easy decision – apart from the cost. While Roma and United haggled over his price right up to the transfer deadline, Smalling missed out on crucial weeks of pre-season training to build up his fitness in a competitive setting.

When he finally became a permanent Roma player after a nervous deadline day, Smalling had already missed the first few games of the season and had to wait to get back up to speed. But since then, a number of niggling injuries have stunted his impact. He has missed more games in Serie A than he has played this season.

In his absence, Gianluca Mancini has become Roma’s most important defender, while Bryan Cristante has dropped into deeper territory and Roger Ibanez has got regular gametime in his first full season in Rome. All have their individual strong points, but as a unit they have provided little resistance to opposition attacks.

Smalling’s return from his latest injury against Cagliari at the weekend came at an ideal time. The Englishman got just under an hour under his belt upon his comeback. It wasn’t a good performance as a team, but at least Smalling settled back in.

Now, as Roma prepare to face his former side in the biggest two games of their season so far, much will hinge on how much Smalling can manage. With Mancini suspended for the first leg, Roma will be desperate for the 31-year-old to be able to play a key role.

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Without him, someone would likely have to play out of position (in addition to Cristante, even though he has played most of the season there). It seems unlikely that Marash Kumbulla would be ready to go straight back into the starting lineup after recovering from his own injury, so the options are slim.

Alternatively, Roma could have to abandon their formation and go to a back four. But given Fonseca’s recent admission that he wouldn’t play with two strikers because of a lack of time to work on new systems in training, he surely wouldn’t change the defensive setup either.

Fonseca did not rule out playing Smalling and Cristante in the back three at the same time in Manchester, along with Ibanez, and it would be a massive boost if the former was up to it.

Against attackers like Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, Roma will need all the experience they can get. If that can come specifically from Smalling – who knows how Solskjaer’s system works, even if that squad has changed somewhat since he left – then Roma’s confidence can only grow.

But if he is not ready for 90 minutes yet, Roma must find another way to stop an attack that has the second-best goalscoring output in the Premier League this season. It will be one of the most challenging aspects of an already tricky tie.

Roma might be relying on Smalling on Thursday, but they must be prudent. With or without him, they will be hoping to find a solution.

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