Chris Smalling believes Manchester United’s injury crisis has abated at the perfect time as they prepare for an FA Cup semi-final with Everton on Saturday.
Louis van Gaal’s squad has been decimated by long-term fitness problems, which have contributed to the derailing of their Premier League and European campaigns, but the majority of the first team has now been welcomed back.
Captain Wayne Rooney returned from a knee problem in the quarter-final replay win over West Ham, meaning Bastian Schweinsteiger (knee), Luke Shaw (leg) and Adnan Januzaj (hamstring) are the only major concerns for United ahead of their trip to Wembley.
And with his side having won five of their last six matches in all competitions, keeping four clean sheets in that time, Smalling is hopeful that United can field close to their strongest possible team against out-of-form Everton.
“I’m looking forward to it because it’s going to be a great occasion,” Smalling, who has shaken off a knock sustained in Wednesday’s league win over Crystal Palace, told MUTV. “Hopefully we can do the job against Everton and get back there for a second visit [for the final].
“A lot of the lads have been coming back into the team in the last couple of games, and everyone’s getting fitter. The manager’s now in a great position to pick a strong team, and hopefully one that is ready to go out there and do the job on Saturday.”
United’s upturn in form has been in stark contrast to that of Everton, who knocked the Red Devils out at this stage of the tournament on penalties back in 2009.
Roberto Martinez’s side have failed to win any of their last six games and were thrashed 4-0 by Liverpool this week in a damaging derby encounter at Anfield.
Gareth Barry sustained a groin injury during the loss while John Stones was affected by illness, while Ramiro Funes Mori earned a red card for a poor challenge on Divock Origi, meaning he is banned for the Wembley trip.
With Phil Jagielka and Seamus Coleman also struggling with hamstring problems, Martinez – who is under growing pressure following supporter protests – is set to use a makeshift defence to face a United side who have beaten them twice this season without conceding.
But the Everton boss insists they can move on from their “horrible” derby defeat and give the fans something to celebrate.
“Nobody deserved to experience that – no fan or player deserved to be in that situation or chain of events,” he said. “We need to move on quickly and repay our fans with a proper performance and showing in the semi-final.
“That game is so close to us that I don’t think we should dwell on this one for too long because you have to focus on Saturday. It was a horrible experience for everyone connected to the football club.
“We need to regroup and make sure we have that opportunity to give the fans what they deserve – a chance to get in the final.”
Key Opta Stats:
– Everton have progressed from six of their last seven FA Cup semi-finals, the exception being their last appearance at this stage in 2012 vs Liverpool. They have needed extra time or penalties to make the final in four of those six progressions.
– Romelu Lukaku has scored in each of his five FA Cup appearances for Everton (six goals).
– Manchester United have scored just once in their last four matches against Everton at Wembley, but that goal from Norman Whiteside was to win the FA Cup in 1985.
– Louis van Gaal’s only previous game at Wembley as a manager came while at Barcelona, beating Arsenal 4-2 in the Champions League group stage there in October 1999.