Dusan Vlahovic, Serbia’s new hope up front, started against Portugal, but Aleksandar Mitrovic finished the game and did so emphatically. It was his goal, late on in Lisbon, which brought tears to the eyes of Cristiano Ronaldo and sent Serbia through to the World Cup in Qatar next winter and forcing Portugal, European champions until this summer, into the play offs.
There has been a feeling that Mitrovic’s time was passing. Vlahovic’s form in Serie A with Fiorentina has alerted Europe’s elite; his days at the Stadio Artemio Franchi are almost certainly numbered as he awaits a chance to shine on a bigger stage.
It was the Fulham, and former Newcastle United, striker who missed a crucial penalty against Scotland at the twilight of Euro 2020 qualification, and it set a tone. Mitrovic was once where Vlahovic finds himself now; the young, strong future star, and he has rarely disappointed on the international stage
At club level, in England certainly, he has found life more difficult. His initial Premier League career was prefaced by a reputation for a short temper on the field. When signing him from Anderlecht in the summer of 2015, Newcastle were told he was ‘like a five-year-old in a monster’s body’. He was physically imposing and a powerful finisher with Champions League experience. His talent and potential were unquestioned and, for a club like Newcastle who were more inclined to take risks on temperament for the reward of profit, he seemed a good option.
It didn’t take long for the caveat with Mitrovic to appear. Seconds into his debut as a substitute, he was booked. Then, in his first start, he was sent off, all before he’d scored a goal. By the end of the season Newcastle were relegated, there was too much pressure on one so young to guide the club to safety from the front and the culture was wrong.
When Rafael Benitez came in, he focussed minds. There were 10 games to save an aimless, soulless institution and he almost did it. Mitrovic’s best moment at the club came in the form of an equaliser in the Tyne-Wear derby,and there was hope that Benitez’s blend of ultra focus, professionalism and tough love could rub off on the young striker. But he wasn’t known for his patience for players he couldn’t immediately trust and Mitrovic’s characteristic as a target man meant he wasn’t the man for him. In January 2018, after Benitez stayed to inspire Newcastle to promotion out of the Championship, he sent Mitrovic on loan to Fulham, quite controversially.
He’d scored goals fleetingly but whenever called upon in the second tier at St James’ Park and instantly did the same for Fulham, netting 12 goals in 18 games and helping fire them to promotion. Newcastle were struggling up front and such stats fast became a stick with which to beat Benitez, who eventually cashed in on Mitrovic the following summer.
The sale seemed to suit everyone; it was a fresh start for a player who thrived off confidence; Newcastle made the profit they initially sought on his arrival, and Benitez assumed he’d get the funds to reinvest. He could scarcely have been more wrong,but that is a story for another day.
Craven Cottage has not been entirely kind to Mitrovic as a permanent home. He has not been able to shake the frustrating tag of being too good for the Championship but no quitet at Premier League level. Every campaign he’s had in the top flight has gone the same way with initial excitement and expectation surrounding both him and the team but a failure to deliver consistently ending the year in disaster.
Although a return of 11 goals in 2018/19 was far from complicit in a disappointing season, three in 27 last term certainly was. Compare that to 26 goals in 41 games two seasons ago and a staggering 20 in just 17 games this term and there could hardly be a greater difference between the two divisions. Mitrovic held hopes of being a top striker one day but he hasn’t managed to find his feet and stamp his authority away from Serbia yet.
Marco Silva’s side are likely to gain promotion this season, by virtue of the number of goals they are scoring, even away from Mitrovic’s exploits. At 27, time is not exactly of the essence but he is also no longer a young pretender, ready to spring onto the big stage like international teammate Vlahovic.
He has never been in better for and his strike for Serbia this week marked something of a mini redemption arc. Mitrovic could be gearing up for another push to finally show he belongs at the top but, after so many false dawns, time is most definitely running out.
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