Jose Mourinho claims fit-again and in-form Manchester United defender Phil Jones could be back on track to regain his place in the England squad.
Jones made the last of his 20 senior international appearances as a late substitute at Wembley against France in November 2015.
The 24-year-old overcame a succession of injuries to return to United’s starting line-up in November after a lengthy absence had led to questions about his future at Old Trafford and Mourinho expressed his surprise at the central defender’s rapid progress.
Mourinho, who insisted it was way too early to compare Jones to the likes of his defensive rock at Chelsea, John Terry, said: “I prefer to say that Jones is doing this season much better than in the previous two seasons and he’s giving hope to everyone that he can be back to normality.
“And who knows? Be back to the national team, be a firm choice at Manchester United, because he’s doing very well.”
Jones was recalled by Mourinho in the win at Swansea in early November due to Chris Smalling’s absence and has started in six of United’s subsequent seven matches, forming a reliable partnership with Marcos Rojo.
“I’m surprised because even with me he had these injuries that stopped him for a long time,” Mourinho said ahead of tonight’s Premier League game at Crystal Palace.
“But he was recovering first with people we trust in the medical department and then he was working really hard with one of my guys, Carlos Lalin, for around three weeks before he joined us and he had a big improvement in his physical condition.
“Now he looks fresh and sharp and agile. I think he had a big evolution and I think he played seven matches.
“Seven matches from Jones, I don’t remember when he last did that.
“So in a period with (Eric) Bailly and Smalling (both out) when people could be scared, Jones and Rojo step up and both play so many matches already, without defeat, playing well and solid and I’m really happy for them.”
Jones’ committed style of play, it has been suggested by some observers, was a key factor in the number of injuries the former Blackburn trainee had been sustaining, but Mourinho was at odds with this notion.
“If you are injured for being brave I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” he said.
“Sometimes you are injured because sometimes you are afraid of contact and you go there with soft feet and then you get injured.
“But really, Jones and Rojo are playing in a way where no yellow cards, no free-kicks, everything is clean.
“They are so focused. They’re going into the tackle at the right time, they have the timings of intervention very correct. I’m really happy.”
Mourinho will be without Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Palace after the midfielder was stretchered off with an ankle injury in Sunday’s win against Tottenham. The Armenian is aiming to return for the St Stephen’s Day visit of Sunderland.
Full-back Antonio Valencia will also be missing as he sits out a one-game ban for accumulating five yellow cards at the weekend.
For his part, Alan Pardew is relishing the chance to finally come up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic, 18 years after first meeting the superstar.
At the start of his managerial career Pardew was on a scouting trip in Sweden when he was introduced to a 17-year-old Ibrahimovic.
The forward went on to have a stellar career with Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona and Paris St Germain before joining United in the summer.
It has been a long time coming but Pardew is now relishing the chance to send his Crystal Palace side out against United and Ibrahimovic.
“Coming up against Zlatan is one thing I’ve not done in my career and I’m looking forward to it,” said Pardew.
“I met him when he was 17 in Sweden.
“My wife is Swedish and her family all love him to bits. He’s an icon there, almost god-like.
“He always makes me smile, and he makes me smile as a person because I think he plays in the right spirit.
“He probably doesn’t remember but it was a social meeting and he carried himself well and spoke well, very professionally, even at a young age.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved