Ferguson acclaims the 'brilliance' of Smith

It was in the space of two frenetic summer months at Old Trafford that Alan Smith went from a rank of second to third behind Wayne Rooney in Manchester United's hierarchy of strikers. But six months on he is not just Sir Alex Ferguson's first-choice striker: he is also his only choice.

The Manchester United manager enthused about the "absolutely brilliant" Smith this week, as he faced up to Rooney's three-match ban and the injuries to Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha. But it will be of interest to the £7.05m man to see what becomes of his first-team place when the Dutch striker comes back for the Champions' League on 23 February.

"He didn't wait to settle in," Ferguson said. "He'd been to a European Cup semi-final with Leeds, he'd had great spells there and played under pressure because their fans are as demanding as they are at Manchester United. He's played for his country and he hit the ground running.

"He's a man. I've told him a couple of times he's done fantastic and he said, 'You don't need to explain to me, I know I've done well. I'll be the first to say it if I've disappointed myself because I know my own expectations.' He said to me, 'I'm delighted, I'm loving it here every minute.' And that was good to hear because sometimes you talk to players who you have reluctantly had to leave out, the likes of Phil Neville, and it's very, very difficult."

Against Middlesbrough this evening, Smith is likely to be paired with Ryan Giggs in the United attack. When the transfer window opens, United will keep an eye on the situation of Thomas Gravesen, out of contract in the summer, who could be allowed to leave if David Moyes signs Robbie Savage. The Dane, 28, has also attracted interest from AC Milan, but could go to United in a player exchange.

Nine points ahead of United, Jose Mourinho will come face-to-face with Steven Gerrard, the only English player to resist the lure of Roman Abramovich's payroll, when his side visit Liverpool today. The Chelsea manager has never denied that he will try to sign the midfielder again this summer, but said this week that Frank Lampard was the better of the two players.

Qualifying that with the rider that Lampard was "better because he's mine", Mourinho said that the best outcome for Chelsea would be that "there's a big fluke and Steven Gerrard can't play against us". But having announced that his players no longer needed the psychological support of their driven manager, Mourinho said that he thought John Terry has developed into the "best central defender in the world".

"I know Sir Alex would say Rio Ferdinand. I know Carlo Ancelotti will say Alessandro Nesta - for me it's John Terry," he said. "Since the first minute I arrived here he's played at the same level. Not up and down, no mistakes. Not more committed against Man United and less concentration against West Bromwich. It's not like he prefers to play against tall and strong strikers or he finds it difficult against fast ones. For him every game is the same, every opponent is the same, the level of his performance is the same.

"He leads the team. He is an important voice on the pitch, where I'm not. I think he's absolutely amazing. I saw him play also in the national team, so not just with us when is the skipper, and has other responsibilities, and the level is the same. So for me he's the most complete one and the best."

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