'Mr 100 million': Europe's elite flocking to scout Lazio star
In August, Lazio owner Claudio Lotito rejected the notion that the Rome side are a selling club.
His defence was pretty convincing. “I turned down 70m euros [£61.7m] for Sergej Milinkovic-Savic,” Lotito argued.
And it’s just as well he did. A fortnight earlier Paris St-Germain signed Neymar for 222m euros (£200m) and the transfer market changed forever. All of a sudden deals like the one Liverpool struck with Roma to bring in Mohamed Salah for £34m in June started to look cheap.
Prices have skyrocketed since and there is a sense Lazio are in a very strong negotiating position in relation to Milinkovic (as he is known in Italy), not only because they extended the 22-year-old midfielder’s contract through to 2020 last spring, but because it is a World Cup year and Serbia are back in the tournament for the first time since 2010.
Scouts from Europe’s super clubs will be at Lazio’s Europa League tie with Steaua Bucharest on Thursday to check on his progress. They follow Lazio as closely as the club’s ultras these days.
“If I were the sporting director of any top European club right now, the first player I would buy is Milinkovic,” said Leonardo, who performed that role for Paris St-Germain.
So what is it about the Serb that has got everybody so excited?
‘SMS’ latest on Genk conveyor belt
Born in Spain, Milinkovic came through the youth set-up at Vojvodina in Serbia’s second largest city.
“Watching him train for 10 minutes in Vojvodina’s youth academy was enough for me to understand his huge potential,” Mateja Kezman, the former Chelsea striker and now the player’s agent, said.
It was Belgian side Genk, the best talent spotters on the continent relative to their place in the European football food chain, who were the first to move for him, in no small part because of the role he played in Serbia’s Under-19 European Championship winning side of 2013.
Domestically the Belgian club’s hit-rate was already high, bringing through the likes of Thibaut Courtois, Christian Benteke and Kevin de Bruyne.
But evidently their network extends beyond tapping the rich seam of Belgium’s golden generation as it also incredibly flagged up Milinkovic, Napoli and Senegal defender Kalidou Koulibaly, Leicester and Nigeria midfielder Wilfred Ndidi and Bayer Leverkusen’s Jamaica U23 international winger Leon Bailey.
They signed Milinkovic in 2014 and by October, he had convinced Genk’s manager at the time, current Scotland boss Alex McLeish, to give him regular playing time. Come the summer he was the star of the Serbia side that won the Under-20 World Cup. Fiorentina invited Milinkovic to Florence, firm in the belief they could beat the competition to sign him.
But the player hesitated and they pulled out.
“We shouldn’t need to convince or beg anyone to play for Fiorentina,” sporting director Daniele Prade complained. “And besides it’s not like a 20-year-old kid can change our team.”
Two days later Milinkovic joined Lazio for 6m euros (£5.3m). Not only has he changed their fortune, he promises to make them one.
Football and basketball in the genes
Kezman has said “it’s hard to make comparisons” when it comes to the Serb. And you can see why.
How many other midfielders do you know who are 6ft 4in tall with everything you expect of a player of that size – strength, physicality, aerial prowess – but also the skill, vision and technique you associate with smaller players in that position.
It’s an unusual skillset explained in part by his genes. Milinkovic’s father Nikola spent years playing in Spain where technique is prioritised above all else.
His mother Milana was a professional basketball player and if you think Milinkovic is tall you should see his younger brother Vanja.
He’s 6ft 8in and recently hit the bar with a 35-yard free-kick for Torino in the Coppa Italia – nothing out of the ordinary you might think for a kid from Vojvodina, a city whose other famous sons include Sinisa Mihajlovic.
Except Vanja is the Italian club’s back-up goalkeeper. Manchester United fans may remember the name from his short spell at the club in 2015.
A failure to obtain a work permit meant he moved to Lechia Gdansk without making any appearances for United.
Incidentally both Milinkovic boys are fan favourites at Lazio for a very simple reason. Sergej helped Lazio knock Roma out the cup last year. Vanja did it this year with Torino. Stick to the right parts of the Eternal City and they never have to buy a cappuccino again.
‘Mr 100 million’
If Milinkovic’s combination of talents defies easy comparison, that hasn’t stopped the Italian papers from trying.
“Lotito has his Pogba,” La Repubblica trumpeted last month.
Milinkovic is considered the closest thing Serie A still has to the former Juventus midfield player. And not just because La Gazzetta dello Sport are talking about Milinkovic as “Mr 100 million” – evoking memories of Pogba’s then world record 100m euro move to Manchester United.
They play in the same area of the pitch, on the left side of midfield, and the presence of a wing-back nearby and a midfield organiser behind gives Milinkovic much the same platform Pogba enjoyed in Turin to go and express himself fully.
For a coach of his relatively limited experience, Simone Inzaghi deserves great credit for identifying exactly how and where to get the most out of him. As we’ve seen with Jose Mourinho and Pogba, that is not as easy as it looks.
Nine goals and four assists this season do not tell the whole story with Milinkovic. He takes over matches.
Against Atalanta, he single-handedly brought Lazio back into the game from 2-0 down. He then snatched a dramatic victory with another double away to Sampdoria and left people stunned with his first-half performance at Napoli two weeks ago.
How Serbia have yet to cap him in a competitive game is a mystery.
He was already raising eyebrows a year ago. Aware of the hype gathering around him, Lazio reportedly bought out the 50% sell-on clause in the terms they agreed with Genk for 9m euros (£7.9m) last September.
Taken as a whole it is a remarkable piece of business. And what is clear is Lazio didn’t simply get lucky; their recruitment, as conducted by former Albania international Igli Tare, has been outstanding.
Whether it is finding the likes of Albanian keeper Thomas Strakosha, Brazilian midfielder Felipe Anderson, and Keita Balde Diao – now with Monaco – before that, and getting there first with Dutch defender Stefan de Vrij before the last World Cup, or turning scrap metal into gold in the case of former Liverpool midfielder Luis Alberto, rebooting another former Red Lucas Leiva and picking up strikers like Miroslav Klose and current Serie A top scorer Ciro Immobile on the cheap, Lazio are shrewd operators.
On Monday they overtook Inter in Serie A to move into the fourth and final Champions League spot. Qualifying for that competition brings more money and will make it easier for Lazio to put the case to Milinkovic that he should stay another year.
But the interest in him is longstanding, serious and high in profile. The phone at Lazio won’t stop ringing. Europe’s super clubs have got the message. They want SMS.