Fiorentina prodigy Nikola Milenkovic can't avoid Nemanja Vidic comparisons
The new Serie A season had only just started, but one of its greatest goals has already been scored. On Sunday, centre-back Nikola Milenkovic sent an unstoppable long-range effort into the top corner to open the scoring as Fiorentina thrashed Chievo 6-1 -- his first ever goal from outside the area.
For many defenders that would have been a career highlight, but for the 20-year-old Serbia international it is likely to be a mere footnote in the tale of his meteoric rise to greatness.
A couple of years ago, Milenkovic used to take several buses each day in order to train with the Partizan Belgrade reserves. Now, he is a star in Serie A and coming off a superb World Cup from a personal point of view. Atletico Madrid and Juventus are reported to be interested in signing him and not for nothing is Milenkovic compared to former Manchester United legend Nemanja Vidic, one of Serbia's best central defenders of all time.
Such a parallel was first made by Ivan Tomic, who was promoted to Partizan coach in December 2015 and immediately told the club to give Milenkovic a professional contract. The lanky centre-back wasn't considered a top prospect with the Partizan reserves until then, but Tomic -- a former Roma and Alaves midfielder who also used to serve as the club's sporting director -- has a good eye for young players.
"Milenkovic has [the] physical characteristics of a beast. He reads the game well, plays the ball, and should have a great career ahead of him," Tomic has said of Milenkovic, privately predicting his protege would soon be worth at least €30 million.
The coach may have resigned in July 2016 but he left a legacy. Having played a few games under Tomic, Milenkovic cemented his place in the starting lineup and became a favourite among the fans, earning the nickname of "Blek Stena" ("the Black Rock"), which has been affectionately shortened to "Bleki." Basing his playing style on idol Gerard Pique, Milenkovic likes to build play from the back, showing remarkable technical skills for a defender who is 6-foot-4.
Milenkovic barely put a foot wrong in 32 league matches as Partizan won the 2016-17 Serbian title boasting an outstanding defensive record. And Fiorentina were quick to snap him up for €5.1m before the season ended, outbidding the likes of Anderlecht and Hamburg. The Belgrade faithful were heartbroken to see him go, but Milenkovic gave them a superb farewell present in his final appearance, scoring the only goal in the cup final against bitter rivals Red Star with a trademark header to complete a domestic double.
Comparisons with Vidic, who began his career at Red Star before moving to Spartak Moscow and then becoming a legend at Manchester United, were always going to raise their head.
"Milenkovic is better than Vidic with the ball at his feet, and he is much calmer on the field," Mozzart journalist Dejan Stankovic tells ESPN FC. "He is the most talented centre-back Serbia have had since Vidic, and they definitely have one thing in common -- both are fearless."
After waiting several months, Milenkovic made his debut in December 2017 in a totally new role -- as a right-back. Few players of his height are able to play on the flank but the Serbian prodigy's pace and tenacity marked him out for coach Stefano Pioli and he impressed.
Playing 16 times for Fiorentina last season, he helped the side to an eighth place finish. And then booked himself a place on the plane to Russia.
"Initially, Nikola wasn't even expected to make the [Serbia] squad by the pundits, because he didn't play a single minute in the qualifiers," Mozzart journalist Aleksandar Joksic tells ESPN FC. "But then Schalke centre-back Matija Nastasic got injured and Milenkovic took his chance, excelling in the friendlies in May. From there on, there was little doubt that he should be a starter in Russia."
Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic, a former centre-back himself, was certainly impressed and was another to bring up the comparison to Vidic.
"Nikola takes every training session seriously, and is very stable. I do not see myself in him, but rather Vidic," he claimed before the start of the tournament. Serbia went out of the tournament at the group stage but Milenkovic played superbly, making countless successful tackles.
"Alongside Aleksandar Kolarov, he was our best outfield performer by a distance and earned a lot of credit," Joksic says. "Nikola is a very level-headed guy who grew up in a good family. He always keeps his feet on the ground, and tries to go forward step by step."
Now that Milenkovic is a star, expectations have changed and top clubs have been constantly linked with him. Not every young player is capable of making the switch without losing touch with reality, but Milenkovic seems to have the right mentality to handle the pressure.
"As soon as the vacation was over, I wanted to join the team and start preparations," he said after again playing at right-back vs. Chievo and scoring that stupendous goal. "I never thought of moving to a new club, because Serie A is ideal for studying, and I can make progress at Fiorentina. There is no better environment for a young player. I know that Diego Simeone was in the stands last night but I believe that he focused on his son Giovanni [Simeone]."
It is no secret that Simeone is a big fan of Milenkovic and Atletico could be willing to pay at least €30m, just as Tomic had predicted, as they look for a long-term replacement for Diego Godin. Ironically, Manchester United made a move for Godin this summer to try and ease their defensive woes, but if the club are looking for a top young defender they would be wise to take a long look at the man labelled "the new Vidic."