Smith can secure holding role for club and country

The managers of Manchester United and England have rarely been in public agreement since Eriksson arrived in England in 2001 and assumed the mantle of Ferguson's successor on his supposed retirement a year later, but the development of Smith is proving a notable exception. The 25-year-old was only six games into his new United career when selected for the recent World Cup qualifiers on his home ground, though he failed to make the bench against Austria and was rewarded with only five minutes in the victory over Poland.

Eriksson spoke before and after the Poland game of Smith being a genuine contender for the holding role at the World Cup, even though it would require a decision of epic proportions by the England manager to separate Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard or to promote the former Leeds hero above Ledley King. While he may appreciate the acknowledgement of his daily work with Smith, however, Ferguson would be forgiven for eyeing Eriksson's midfield luxuries with envy.

Smith has made an encouraging if not exhilarating start to his conversion, one that many contest has come too late for him to become the midfielder that Ferguson admitted he wasn't when the player was plucked from the Elland Road fire sale for £7m. But as the number of games he has started in that role amounts to single figures, it is far too early for a categorical verdict. Smith was more of a team player than a selfish marksman, even up front, and that awareness, allied to an insatiable appetite to learn from Ferguson and his assistant Carlos Queiroz, explains United's confidence in him.

Whether he can suddenly unearth the dynamism to dictate a game in the manner of Keane or discover the ability to sense problems around his own penalty area before they occur, as his opposite number Jean Makoun did throughout last night's soulless game, remains to be seen. In what was a relatively inexperienced central midfield, and especially so in Champions' League terms, Smith last night produced an exemplary workrate alongside Darren Fletcher but, possibly under instruction, never strayed on the side of adventure with his passing. The first time he attempted a forward pass further than 20 yards it went straight to the Lille centre-half Efstathios Tavlaridis, and thereafter he kept it simple with far more success.

In comparison with his outing, against Benfica, there was more maturity to Smith's display last night, even his fouls were committed away from the dangerous territory that allowed Simao Sabrosa to equalise for the Portuguese club three weeks ago.

If Smith has the attributes to flourish in midfield then his development will have to continue at a similarly prodigious rate. United's long-term target to replace Keane, Michael Ballack, is due to tell Bayern Munich this week whether he plans to accept their offer of an extended contract or leave on a free transfer next summer. The latter is the widely anticipated option, resulting in a salary war between United and Real Madrid, and whether Smith adapts superbly or not, that is a contest Malcolm Glazer cannot afford to lose.

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