A plea for Serbia to start the brilliant Sergej Milinković-Savić in Russia
As we approach the first game of the World Cup, there will be a number of players under the international spotlight after eye-catching seasons at club level.
A good season in a World Cup year presents different challenges to normal, with pressure to continue the impressive form alongside unfamiliar team-mates and in vastly different circumstances, with certain clubs opting to ignore the last nine months and move players to the front of the transfer queue on the basis of just a half-dozen games in a showpiece tournament.
Sergej Milinković-Savić will be up against it in some ways but perfectly placed in others.
The Serbian midfielder will go up against Brazil, Switzerland and Costa Rica in a group where his country could progress just as easily as they could end without a single point, with an underwhelming Argentina potentially waiting in the last 16.
With his Lazio side missing out on Champions League qualification on the final day of the Serie A season, the 23-year-old has already begun featuring in gossip columns, and the quality of his World Cup campaign could end up deciding where, rather than whether, he moves.
And if you’ve somehow taken in the gossip while missing the reasons for the talk, here’s your chance to show off to your mates before he goes up against Bryan Ruiz, Keylor Navas et al on June 17.
But despite the season just past, he may still have to play his way into starting contention.
Two decades ago, another 23-year-old midfielder went into a World Cup in great form for his club but had to wait for a chance at the tournament itself.
The reasons for David Beckham’s exclusion weren’t quite the same – Milinković-Savić has missed out largely due to Serbia’s tactical set-up providing less room for an all-action midfielder than he might hope for – but he’ll certainly hope to mimic the Englishman in making an instant impact if and when he gets an opportunity to do so.
Considering the manner in which Slavoljub Muslin’s squad qualified for the tournament in Russia – just one defeat in a competitive qualifying group – it might be tempting to avoid changing a winning formula.
However, Muslin has since been replaced by Mladen Krstajić, and the former assistant has already made efforts to put his own stamp on the team as they prepare for Russia.
The unusual preparation can go one of two ways: Serbia could collapse in on themselves as a team, unable to replicate the qualities which saw them win their qualifying group, or they could be made stronger by the disruption.
If they’re to achieve the latter, they may well need to rely on the potential star power which Milinković-Savić holds.
— Man United News (@ManUtdMEN) June 2, 2018
With the likes of Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević in the squad, Serbia are well-stocked when it comes to players prepared to put a foot through the ball.
But in Milinković-Savić they have a man just as willing to let the ball dance around his boots to leave opponents not just chasing shadows, but chasing shadows of shadows.
He showed this brilliantly for Lazio against Napoli, plucking the ball out of the air as if lassoing the moon. But that was only part one: the way he then proceeds to flick the ball over a second Napoli player is that most beautiful of footballing moves: the one which leaves a player unable to process where the ball is, or even what sport he is playing.
The touch is, on its own, an advert for slow-motion replays – nothing else would come close to capturing the sheer confusion of the beaten player; the brain carrying out countless calculations to merely get to the point where they can begin to figure out what’s just happened.
If Milinković-Savić passes the first test of breaking into the starting line-up in Russia, he will face another challenge which has not necessarily been as much of a consideration during his time with Lazio.
At club level, he gets to share responsibilities with the likes of Luis Alberto, Senad Lulić and Felipe Anderson, with plenty of opponents sitting back in the knowledge that, if one man can’t damage them, another will. And that’s before we get on to the free-scoring Ciro Immobile higher up the field.
Things will be different with a Serbia side whose opponents will be their equals at worst, and where midfield devastation is in shorter supply.
Some of the standout moments of his time at Lazio have been made possible by the sense that he’s far from the only dangerman, with this 2016-17 goal against Genoa a prime example. The knockdown was seen by the Genoa defenders as a job done – stop that and you’ll stop him – but it was only the beginning.
Seeing a man murder a football in cold blood with his chest and then his boot is like watching someone say goodbye to a shoe: you’ll see it happen, but just once.
The World Cup offers that rarest of opportunities, an opportunity – nay, a requirement – to watch entire matches featuring players whose game doesn’t always lend itself to highlight reels.
That might sometimes lead to impulse signings which don’t work out (looking at you, Kléberson), but it also gives scouts – both professional and armchair – a chance to speculate about how certain players might fare across a variety of tactical setups.
With Milinković-Savić, we can look out for the montage moments rather than the highlight-reel ones; those silky touches which get the verse of the song as their post-tournament soundtrack, rather than the key-change and chorus.
Of course, if he really gets going, we could be treated to both.
By Tom Victor