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Aleksandar Mitrovic must grasp golden opportunity to prove his worth

Wednesday 22nd February 2017
Following the news that Newcastle United's top goalscorer Dwight Gayle is likely to miss up to a month of action after suffering a recurrence of his troublesome hamstring injury during Monday night's 2-0 victory over Aston Villa, tempestuous Serbian live wire Aleksandar Mitrovic looks set to spearhead the Magpies' attack going into a season-defining run of fixtures against the club's direct promotion rivals - a tremendous opportunity that the irascible 22-year-old must seize for the sake of his long-term future.
Mitrovic, widely touted as one of the hottest young talents in European football, arrived on Tyneside from Belgian outfit R.S.C Anderlecht during the summer of 2015 following a protracted transfer saga, and Newcastle fans licked their lips at the prospect of what the enigmatic - yet highly gifted - youngster could achieve in the famous black and white stripes.

Endowed with a strapping physique that belied his tender years, and an uncanny aerial prowess that looked capable of terrorising even the sternest defences the Premier League had to offer, then Newcastle manager Steve McClaren fervently spoke of his ambitious plans to build a team around his new £13million investment for years to come.  However, unfortunately for Mitrovic and his former boss, things did not go quite to plan.

The Serbian international's initial impact for the Magpies was not a positive one, with Mitrovic becoming famed for his dangerous late lunges and combustible personality rather than his influence in the opposing area - an early perception which was further compounded when he received a straight red card for a horror challenge against Arsenal during the opening month of the 2015/16 campaign.

From that point onwards, it appeared that McClaren and his Newcastle coaching staff harboured deep reservations about entrusting Mitrovic with leading the Magpies' line, with the precocious striker's tactical immaturity and penchant for the dark arts making him a constant liability that an under-pressure manager could ill afford to risk.
Despite struggling to nail down a regular starting place in the Newcastle XI throughout the season, Mitrovic did show glimpses of his undoubted talent during his maiden campaign in English football by registering a respectable return of nine Premier League goals. However, the stout-hearted Serb was powerless to prevent the Magpies suffering a painstaking relegation to the Championship following a dismal campaign; despite incoming manager Rafael Benitez's commendable late season efforts to rescue what was an already sinking ship.

With blue-chip stars such as Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko and Andros Townsend all moving on to pastures new over the summer following United's plummet into the unchartered waters of the football league, many assumed that Mitrovic - one of the club's most saleable assets - would soon follow his former teammates through the St James' Park exit in a bid to raise funds for Benitez to reinvest in the playing squad.

However, after expressing a burning desire to remain on Tyneside and fire the side he claims to have supported as a boy back into the promised land, Mitrovic, somewhat surprisingly, remained a Magpies' player following the closure of the summer transfer window and looked set to play a pivotal role in Benitez's crusade to secure an instant return to the Premier League.

Mitrovic's best games in a Newcastle shirt arrived when he was operating as a battering ram, knocking the ball down for his teammates and presenting a formidable threat from crosses and set-pieces, however, these type of individual strengths do not align Benitez's idea of the perfect centre-forward.

The erudite Spaniard has demonstrated a proclivity for playing a lone forward throughout an overwhelming majority of his esteemed managerial career; generally opting to field more lithe and mobile strikers that are capable of harrying opposition defences and getting into the space behind back fours.

Unfortunately for Mitrovic, he does not fit the mould of Benitez's archetypal striker, with the Serbian's limited mobility, laboured running style and lack of intellectual acuity reducing him to a bit-part role from the substitutes bench after making just a handful of starts in the league and cup competitions.
To Mitrovic's credit, he has shown real signs of improvement in recent weeks and, although a match-winning display at Molineux was almost blighted by a hare-brained challenge on Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, the former Anderlecht man appears to be slowly maturing and buying into what Benitez expects of him.

Prior to Mitrovic's introduction against struggling Aston Villa, Newcastle looked devoid of ideas and inspiration, as they failed to test a porous Villa backline which has been letting in goals by the hatful in recent weeks. However, once prematurely thrust into the action following Gayle's injury, the Serbian international changed the entire complexion of the match.

Mitrovic displayed his technical ability by bringing his United teammates into play throughout the game with a series of expertly guided flicks, and refused to give Villa defenders James Chester and Tommy Elphick a moments rest; as a zestful individual display inspired the Magpies to three points that saw them return to the summit of the Championship table.

It was the type of dynamic, all-action performance that the Toon Army should be seeing far more often from their madcap number 45, and with Gayle set for another prolonged spell on the sidelines, Mitrovic will likely be handed the opportunity to prove that he can finally be entrusted with effectively leading Newcastle's promotion charge.

With consecutive away ties against direct automatic promotion rivals Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading following this weekend's home clash with Bristol City, Benitez will be acutely aware of the fact that United's fierce rivals will attempt to expose Mitrovic's explosive personality to give themselves an upper hand by any means necessary.

If the popular Serb is to enjoy a future at St James' Park under the tutelage of the former Real Madrid boss then he will have to prove his worth during these season-defining ties by coupling his undisputed talent with a far more phlegmatic and measured demeanour - a failure to do so could result in Mitrovic's turbulent Newcastle career ending with a whimper.

You get the impression that this really is the last chance saloon.
David O'Neill
North-East based journalism graduate, postgrad student & freelance sports writer with experience writing for a number of online publications. Long-suffering Newcastle United fan and Rafael Benitez enthusiast. Voracious watcher of all football, with a particular interest in the Premier League, Championship and Champions League.

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