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07th Jul 2019

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: the Spanish-born Serbian who could replace Paul Pogba

Simon Lloyd

Milinković-Savić has again been linked with a move to Old Trafford

In October 2017 Jose Mourinho travelled to Vienna. The then-Manchester United manager was pictured in the stands of the Ernst Happel Stadion as Austria hosted Serbia in their penultimate qualifier for the World Cup in Russia. The purpose of his trip, however, wasn’t clear.

As images of Mourinho, grey baseball cap on head, started circulating on Twitter, some excitedly pointed out he was almost certainly in attendance to watch Sergej Milinković-Savić, the highly rated Serbian midfielder who has been turning heads at some of Europe’s most prestigious clubs since joining Lazio in 2015.

If this had been Mourinho’s plan that night – and many seem to be of the opinion it was –  he would have left the Austrian capital disappointed. Milinković-Savić, despite being injury-free, was not in the Serbian side that evening. He had not even been called up to the squad.

Despite the midfielder’s obvious talent, Slavoljub Muslin, Serbia’s manager at the time, had placed faith in the more senior players available to him. Youngsters such as Milinković-Savić would have to prove their worth in the younger-aged teams, biding their time until a space in the senior squad opened up for them.

Three days after that game in Vienna (which Austria won 3-2), a victory over Georgia in Belgrade saw Serbia seal their place at the World Cup. Although this might have appeared to have vindicated Muslin’s policy of favouring experience over exciting youngsters, it was not enough for him to keep his job. The 64-year-old’s contract was terminated by the end of the month, Mladen Krstajic replacing him.

Prior to Muslin’s departure, Serbian football officials criticised him for his refusal to bring the likes of Milinković-Savić to the senior team, despite his starring role in the country’s Under-20 World Cup success in 2015. It is widely believed that his failure to do so cost Muslin his job, regardless of the fact he guided the nation to their first major tournament in eight years.

Heading into last summer’s World Cup, the hype surrounding Milinković-Savić in his homeland was matched by the excitement in Italy. He had just enjoyed an impressive season with Lazio, scoring 14 goals.

A physically imposing, box-to-box midfielder with bags of technical ability, comparisons were being made to Paul Pogba, with some reports tipping him to replace him as Serie A’s most expensive export.

Mourinho was thought to be keen on taking him to Old Trafford. Real Madrid and Juventus were reportedly monitoring the situation, too. But, perhaps not helped by Serbia’s group stage elimination from the World Cup, a move failed to materialise.

Born in Spain where his father Nikola Milinković had played football professionally (his mother Milana Savić was a professional basketball player, incidentally), his first club was Vojvodina, in the city of Novi Sad, northern Serbia. His agent, former Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman, was quick to recognise his ability when he watched him playing for the club’s youth side. Having risen through the ranks and broken into the first team, he helped Vojvodina win their first ever Serbian cup in 2014. Despite his tender years, he quickly established himself as a prominent player for the club, regarded by many as one of its leaders.A move to Belgium with Genk soon followed. Playing under Alex McLeish and as a teammate to Leicester’s Wilfred Ndidi, he established himself as a regular starter. This, along with the Under-20 World Cup success – was enough to secure him a move to Italy.

Although it was Lazio he signed for, Milinković – as he is more commonly known in Italy – came remarkably close to joining their Serie A rivals, Fiorentina. With a move to Florence all but complete, eleventh-hour hesitation on his part saw Viola sporting director Daniele Prade pull the plug on the transfer.

“We don’t beg anyone to come here,” Prade later explained. “Sergej asked us to hold off on doing the medical so that he could speak with his girlfriend and then decide.

“But, for us, that wasn’t on. If he has issues outside of football to resolve, then we’re going to take a step back and say, ‘Enough’.”

Two days later, he inked a contract with Lazio, completing a move for just £5.3m.

“I hope I’m worth it,” was his typically unassuming response to the transfer fee.

His reputation climbed steadily prior to his breakthrough season, to the extent that Lazio’s owner Claudio Lotito claimed to have knocked back a £61.7m offer for him in 2017. Though he helped them to the Coppa Italia, Milinković failed to reach the same heights during 2018/19, where he managed half of his goal tally from the previous season. Despite this, it is unlikely Lazio will be letting him leave on the cheap, the Rome-based club said to value him  at €100m.

Though Mourinho is no longer at the helm at Manchester United, fresh reports have suggested the club could resurrect their interest in Milinković, now 24, in the coming weeks.

If he does make the move to Manchester, he will hope his time there works out better than it did for his younger brother, Vanja. Recently loaned to Standard Liege from Serie A side, Torino, the 22-year-old goalkeeper signed for United in 2014. However, after failing to obtain a work permit, he left for Lechia Gdansk without making a single appearance.

Though Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has no intention of granting want-away Pogba’s wish for a move away from Old Trafford this summer, the Serbian might well prove to be on a shortlist of names to replace the World Cup winner if United change their stance.