Manchester United defenders Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are "two to three weeks away" from returning to first-team action, according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

The defensive pair have yet to make an appearance this season with respective foot and knee problems with United suffering as a result.

The long-term absence of Nemanja Vidic has swelled the problems created by Smalling and Jones' injuries, but Ferguson says the duo are on the verge of a return.

Chris Smalling and Phil Jones
Smalling and Jones are close to a return.

"Chris Smalling trained this morning with Warren Joyce's Reserves," Ferguson said on Monday.

"He's trained with them for a couple of days. It's non-contact for him at the moment - he's just playing as a free player, a floating player, in the training sessions. The encouraging thing is that he's on the road back. There's no question about that.

"I expect Phil Jones to start on the football side of things on Monday. They're both around two or three weeks away, which is good news. They're not far away."

Smalling has made just five starts for United in 2012 and missed both Euro 2012 and the Olympic Games with a broken metatarsal, while Jones, who also missed the opportunity to represent his country in a major tournament, had knee surgery in September which ruled him out for a further two months.

Both players are seen as the long-term replacements for Rio Ferdinand and Vidic at the heart of the United back-four but currently the club face an injury crisis in the position, with the club captain out until the end of next month.

Meanwhile, midfielder Anderson says he will continue to work hard to help improve his rate of United appearances this season.

The Brazilian midfielder has been a peripheral figure for the 12-time Premier League champions this term and Ferguson has said previously the 24 year old has been unlucky to play so infrequently since his 2007 move from Porto.

"It feels good to hear that," Anderson said.

"I believe in myself and it's nice to hear the boss say things like that. It's been one game here and one game there and a bit up and down, but my aim is to just keep progressing and to play consistently.

"If I can stay fit and play well I know I'll get opportunities. I'm really trying to look after myself and get as fit as I can."