England boss Gareth Southgate chose the right game to take a weekend break to Milan and watch Serie A’s most in-form defender, Chris Smalling.
Southgate had obviously heard the good reports emanating out of Italy about Smalling’s performances since arriving in the Eternal City, and with Euro 2020 around the corner, decided to see what all the fuss was about.
He wasn’t to be disappointed. The Londoner put on a virtuoso display of defending, was imperious in marshalling Inter’s Romelu Lukaku throughout the entire 90 minutes, and generally not taking his eye off his former Manchester United team-mate. Lukaku, scorer of 10 league goals in 15 games for the Nerazzurri, scarcely touched the ball.
Smalling has been a player reborn since joining Roma. The loan raised eyebrows in the dying embers of the summer transfer window. The Giallorossi had tried in vain to sign numerous defenders throughout July and August, but they’d either been rejected or priced out of deals.
And so they ended up with Smalling, who’d fallen down the pecking order at United. It was a marriage of convenience; Roma needed a defender, and Smalling needed first team football if he was to make Southgate’s squad for Euro 2020.
And yet, three months on, both parties are reaping the rewards. He had to bide his time, and didn’t get his first start until the end of September, but once Smalling played, he proved to be indispensable for Paulo Fonseca.
He scored his first goal for the club in the 4-0 away win against Udinese in late October, and followed that up with another goal – and an assist – in the 3-0 win against Brescia a month later to become the first English player to score two goals in a single Serie A season since David Beckham at Milan in 2008-09.
Smalling seems to be embracing life in the capital, has spoken of the desire to challenge himself and is taking multiple Italian lessons per week in order to assimilate himself into his new environment. Roma have talked about hoping to make a permanent deal for the 30-year-old.
He has struck up a formidable partnership alongside fellow summer signing Gianluca Mancini in the heart of the Roma defence, and the two combined to stifle Serie A’s most devastating forward-line in Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku.
Lu-La, as they have been unimaginatively dubbed by the Italian media, have scored 60% of Inter’s goals this season, 24 goals between them in all competitions. Antonio Conte’s side had scored in every single game between Serie A and the Champions League. Yet Smalling and Mancini put an end to that.
Should he continue to put in outstanding performances like last night, Southgate will have no other choice but to include Smalldini, as he’s been nicknamed by some fans, in his 23-man squad for next summer’s tournament.