- Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic ready to make World Cup bow
- Was pivotal in their U-20 World Cup winning side of 2015
- Is dreaming of a medal at his first senior tournament
“I think that I'm in a really good place right now.”
While this won’t surprise anyone who has watched Sergej Milinkovic-Savic over the past season, having dazzled in Rome at the heart of Lazio’s midfield, it will still remain music to the ears of Serbia fans.
Rangy, tall and domineering in the centre of the field, the 23-year-old has been a rising star whose ascent has only intensified in recent months. Now he stands as one of the world's most coveted youngsters.
With his future being tossed around the gossip columns, he is already seen as one of Serbia’s principle talents at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ despite only having three caps to his name. You could understand the focus becoming suffocating for an up-and-coming player. But for Milinkovic-Savic? No chance.
“Pressure? I love pressure, it gets the best out of me. That's when I feel the best and give maximum on the pitch – those who know me can confirm that,” he told FIFA.com. “I am absolutely ready for Russia. If I need to earn the trust of the head coach [Mladen] Krstajic, I will do my best to justify that.”
With a potential crunch meeting with Brazil awaiting in Group E, after clashes with Costa Rica and Switzerland, there could be plenty of pressure to thrive off. He is also likely to meet one Gabriel Jesus, who he overcame in arguably his finest hour to date two years ago.
Milinkovic-Savic’s name first began flowing from the fingers of fans across social media when he helped guide Serbia to an impressive triumph at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 2015, beating Brazil in the final. While that success was illuminated by flashes of his class in New Zealand, his transition into the full team hasn't been a smooth one – much to the consternation of the Eagles’ supporters.
Having won the adidas Bronze Ball down under as the tournament’s third best player, his promise did not go unnoticed and was sat on the senior bench just three months later. However, he did not step onto the field until November 2017 – his presence being one of the first imprints new coach Krstajic made on the side.
Milinkovic-Savic provides options, too. Being able to adapt in the centre of the park, he can occupy a dogged, all-action role towards the base of midfield, or get his head up and take control further forward to make a side tick.
The Milinkovic-Savic sporting dynasty
- Father: Nikola Milinkovic – played top flight football in Spain in the mid-1990s
- Mother: Milana Savic – a well-known basketball player in Yugoslavia
- Brother: Vanja Milinkovic-Savic – Two years Sergej’s junior, currently playing for Torino and part of the 2015 U-20 World Cup winners
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Despite being 6ft 3ins, Vanja towers over his older brother by five inches. “He always jokes about that. Who is taller, stronger [laughs],” explained Sergej.
He is a staunch Real Madrid fan from his younger days, having been born in Spain where his father was a professional footballer. As a result, seeing his midfield elegance compared to Merengues legend Zinedine Zidane is a compliment of the highest order.
“That comparison can only flatter me,” the Serbian admitted. “However, I see myself more as a Yaya Toure. As for idols, I can say I have always watched and looked up to Nemanja Matic as well.”
Toure’s role is more where he sees himself in the coming years, though, operating like former national team star Dejan Stankovic. “I can see myself as a future play-maker,” the youngster explained. “That is how I like to play most, and my last season in Lazio has proved it.”
Sergej could have opted to play for Spain, but the thought of turning out for the 2010 World Cup winners was never on his radar. “I am very well aware where I come from and where I belong. My country is Serbia and I am always proud to say that. I was the happiest man alive when they summoned me to be a member of the senior team.”
With that passion for the shirt, what would leaving his second World Cup - and first senior tournament - with a medal mean to him?
“All my boyhood dreams would come true.”