On a tense spring evening, the floodlights of the Stadio Olympico illuminate the semi-final of the 2017 TIM Cup. More importantly, its also the Derby della Capitale, as Roma and Lazio lock horns in Italy’s fieriest derby. 36 minutes in, the ball is delicately plucked out of the air by the brightest light on the pitch. They call him ‘sergente’, a play on his name and a nod to his imposing presence. He lofts a sublime ball down the right wing, but instead of admiring his own talent, he glides across the pitch and into the box. 6ft 4, and yet, defenders have no chance tracking a player who barely disturbs the grass under his feet. The ball is returned to him as he finishes clinically into the bottom right corner. He points to the badge and to the back of his shirt, announcing himself as a name which the footballing world will come to marvel at.
The architect and finisher of his own passage of play, it is a glimpse into a player who can do it all, and is why Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is touted to become one of the world’s best.
Already a Serbian international at 22, Milinkovic-Savic was actually born in Spain, where his father, Nikola, was playing professionally for Almeria at the time. Sport clearly runs in the blood, his mother, Milana, was a professional basketball player and his brother, Vanja, currently plays as a goalkeeper for Torino.
It was as though it was meant to be for Sergej. His purpose from birth to contribute to the family’s sporting heritage. Even so, none of his family could predict the astronomical rise to fame the young Serb could have. Fast-tracked through the youth system at Vojvodina, he signed for Genk aged 19 but stayed only a year before being snapped up by Lazio.
Whether it was his sheer height or his composed play which goes well beyond his young age, once Milinkovic-Savic made his debut in 2015, he was already an unmissable presence in the team.
To say he took his chance and didn’t look back would be understatement of the year. 35 appearances in his first season and three goals is impressive considering the number of substitute appearances and his role in deep midfield.
If the 2015-16 season was the platform, then the 2016-17 season was when the Milinkovic-Savic train really started to pick up steam. I mean that in a literal sense too, the midfielder has frightening amounts of pace and power which goalkeepers have found out the hard way. Milinkovic-Savic packs one of the fiercest shots in the league, picking up a reputation for scoring unstoppable thunderbolts. His goalscoring tally for the season improved to seven in 39 by the end of the season.
It would be easy to say that the Serb is another tall, imposing presence who is only used as a battering ram. But that would mean putting Milinkovic-Savic in the same discussion as Marouane Fellaini, and that’s simply not fair. No, for every blunderbuss shot, there is equal amounts of deadly, sniper-like precision to his play.
With an eye for a pin-point pass, as well as an incredibly delicate touch for such a tall player, Milinkovic-Savic would fit in with the likes of Mesut Ozil as a cultured midfielder. Opposites really do attract as the two opposing sides of his game have fused together beautifully with the end product being a player who is equally at home as a box-to-box midfielder, or unlocking defences as a number ten.
With ten goals in 26 appearances already this season, Milinkovic-Savic’s potential suitors are building month-by-month. Chelsea have been the long-term Premier League interest, but for now, Lazio seems to be the perfect environment for him to hone his craft. The capital club sit third, with Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile forming an unbeatable partnership on their day. Challenging at the top of Serie A and potential Champions League football is more than what most young stars could ask for when it comes to a stage to prove yourself.
There is also the small case of the World Cup this year. Recent World Cups have proved to be the perfect chance for highly-rated youngsters to skyrocket their market value and earn big moves. James Rodriguez and Divock Origi were two different cases but both used the 2014 tournament to truly announce themselves. With arguably a bigger reputation than either of those players had pre-World Cup, if all goes well then Milinkovic-Savic could be a name we’re hearing a lot more of by the end of the year.