The date was the 22nd December 2018 and it had been seven matches since SS Lazio had won a match and three months since Sergej Milinkovic-Savic had scored for the club. The Biancocelesti were playing Cagliari at home at the Stadio Olympico in Rome and all at the club were feeling the pressure; manager Simone Inzaghi made a tactical change by playing both Luis Alberto and Joaquin Correa behind main striker Ciro Immobile, and the plan worked as the home team ran out 3-1 winners. However, it was the much maligned Milinkovic-Savic, AKA SMS, who scored the opening goal!
Correa hit a shot that was parried by the Sardinian goalkeeper and fell into the path of the Serbian international, who calmly placed the ball into the right side of the opposition’s goal, and the midfielder went away showing visible signs of emotion and soon he was joined by his teammates. They knew just how important this goal was for the 23-year old, as not only did it break his bad run of form in front of goal, but it also gave the team the lead, but it showed once again, why the player is so highly rated.
Milinkovic-Savic’s sporting story began early. He was born in the Spanish city of Lleida, Catalonia, into a sporting family. His father Nikola was playing for the local team at the time, while they were in Segunda B, while his mother Milana played basketball professionally, so it seemed he was destined to be a professional athlete.
As a child his formative football years were spent in the nations where his dad played, notably at Sporting Club in Lisbon, while his father plied his trade at Chaves and Alverca and later at Grazer AK in Austria. However, it was not until his family went back home to Serbia that he joined Novi Sad based in Vojvodina. He entered the team’s youth academy at the age of nine in 2006, and helped the club win consecutive national youth championships, earning himself a professional contract with the club on Boxing Day 2012.
He did not make his debut for another year and ended up spending just one full year with the club, scoring four goals in 16 appearances, but he did help the club to win the Serbian Cup for the first time ever, after having been on the losing end in the final four times. Milinkovic-Savic helped himself to one of the goals in their semi-final win over Spartak Subotica, and the club won the final 2-0 over Jagodina.
There were rumours of moves to the bigger leagues in Italy, Spain and England, but his next move was to Belgium and Genk. He made an immediate impact at De Smurfen’s (The Smurfs), providing drive, invention and youthful exuberance and scored five goals in 25 matches. However, the club itself, did not have a great season, finishing 7th in the league, outside the European places, and saw city rivals KAA Ghent win the championship.
At the end of that season, he was on the move again, as this time he accepted an offer from one of Europe’s top tier teams, joining Lazio for a reported fee just over $10 million. The year 2015 would be a significant time in Milinkovic-Savic’s carear as in addition to making the move, he was called up to the Serbian national team for the first time for the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers against Albania and Portugal. He did not participate in either match, but the experience of being around the best players from his country would have done the then 20-year old the world of good.
He was an unused substitute in Le Aquile’s 2-0 defeat to Juventus in the Supercoppa Italia in Beijing, but made his debut in the crucial clash versus Bayer Leverkuesen in the UEFA Champions League play-off. He came on in the 53rd minute in the first leg in Rome, where the hosts won 1-0, however, they were blown away 3-0 in the second leg in Germany where the Serb did not get onto the pitch.
As with most players that have gone to the tactical Italian game, it took SMS a while to adapt to the play. Under manager Stefano Pioli, he usually started on the bench, being mostly employed as an impact substitute, and when he did come on, he was used in a few different positions on the field, mostly though, on the right side of the midfield. He scored his first goal in the Europa League in the club’s opening European match of that season, but had to wait until the new year to register his first league goal versus Fiorentina in a 3-1 win.
The best aspect of SMS’s game is that he has contentiously improved his game. In his first couple of seasons, he scored seven goals in 74 matches, however his 2017-2018 season was a real breakout campaign. The club opened their season in the best possible way, defeating Juve 3-2 in the Supercoppa Italia, with SMS contributing a key piece by being the link between the midfield and the attack as he won his first piece of silverware with the Romans. The player finished the season with 14 goals, including 12 in the league as Lazio just missed out on a UEFA Champions League spot after a last day loss to Inter.
This led to plenty of speculation about SMS’s future with seemingly all of Europe’s big boys looking to add the player to their squad. The player himself had a World Cup to focus on, but his & Serbia’s performance was not great and they were knocked out in the group stage. Back at Lazio, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, his start was not great either, which led to protests from a section of the Laziale against him as well as Luis Alberto. It goes without saying that this would have affected the 23-year old’s impact on the field, and he struggled until that goal against Cagliari.
However, now, back in form and contributing mightily to the club’s ambitions this season, we see a player who is taking his game to the next level. SMS is the modern midfielder that managers dream of having. He has played in just about every position in the middle, from a “number 10” to a defensive midfielder. He can finish off attacks with a goal, make a telling pass to one of his teammates and stop the opposition in their tracks, either with his marking ability, physicality or tackling qualities.
He has added another element to his game, becoming more adept at taking free-kicks as evident by his stunner against Novara in the Coppa Italia to open the new year. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic has all the tools to become one of the best players in the world and as he progresses further with his career, it’ll be interesting to see whether he can install his name into the pantheon of footballing legends.
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