Pearce hails Fulham defender Smalling

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The Independent Football

England Under-21s manager Stuart Pearce is in no doubt Fulham defender Chris Smalling has a big future.

The 19-year-old is expected to retain his place in central defence against Lithuania in Vilnius tonight having impressed alongside Manchester City's Micah Richards in 1-0 win over Portugal on Saturday, in what was his first start under Pearce.

Smalling joined the Cottagers in June 2008 from non-league Maidstone, and made his debut in their Europa League clash against CSKA Sofia earlier this season.

Pearce accepts with the likes of highly-rated Norway international Brede Hangeland to compete with in Roy Hodgson's back-line, it will be difficult for Smalling to get an extended run in the side.

However, the England Under-21 coach is in no doubt Smalling has what it takes to continue his rapid development.

"Chris has impressed me everyday in training and have been saying for the last two or three matches that I have to get him a game," said Pearce.

"Maybe he was fortunate that James Tomkins was out injured, but he certainly took his chance."

Pearce continued: "Next he has to break into the Fulham side.

"To be fair with Brede Hangeland and Aaron Hughes, they have got two very sturdy central defenders.

"But all the experience we can give him will help him as a player.

"He will improve, there is no doubt in my mind about that, because when you tell him to do things, he takes them on board and does them.

"Chris is a very bright kid, listens and that gives you something to work with."

Pearce has called on his youngsters to put their new-found defensive resilience into action once again tomorrow night.

The young Lions kept on course for a place in the 2011 European Championships with a hard-fought victory over Portugal in blustery conditions at Wembley on Saturday following a first Under-21 goal from Tottenham's Danny Rose.

Pearce's men are now second in Group Nine, three points behind leaders Greece and holding a match in hand, with the eventual winners and four best-runners up automatically qualifying for the finals in Denmark.

The trip to Vilnius will provide another stern test for the young England squad which, like the senior squad, has been hit by a number of withdrawals.

"England teams down the years, going back 20 years to when I started, were all built on clean sheets," said Pearce.

"We feel as though we have got goals in our squad. Now we have to build on being difficult to score against."