Past time Mitrovic stepped out of the shadows
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Cristiano Ronaldo grabbed all the headlines when Portugal proved too much for Serbia in a wide-open affair in Belgrade on Saturday. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner scored the third Selecao goal and the first of three by both nations in the final ten minutes.
Victory lifted the Portuguese to second in Group B on five points. The media acted like doctors removing a patient from critical care. Euro 2020 qualification hopes were resuscitated, they said, but cautioned the patient remained eight points behind group leaders Ukraine.
Factually, that’s correct. A look at the table suggests a less severe diagnosis, however. Ronaldo and Co’s three games are the fewest in the group. Ukraine’s five are the most. Everyone else is on four. The win over the Serbs leaves Portugal with two games in hand on the leaders. With those two matches and a head-to-head tilt to come, group honours are well within reach. Fernando Santos’ side controls their own destiny. Put the defibrillator down, Nurse Betty.
Painting the darkest picture cultivates traffic, of course, as does revolving the story around one of the two most famous footballers on the planet. Yet, Portugal is as far from being a one-man team as they’ve ever been. William Carvalho, Goncalo Guedes and Bernardo Silva also made the scoresheet.
For the longest time, opponents paid for taking their eyes off CR7. Now, it’s costly to focus too much on him. He was only responsible for 25% of the damage in this game.
It’s the same in Serie A where he’s scored just one of Juventus’ five goals on the campaign. That may change over the course of the season but perhaps not as much as in past seasons. Gonzalo Higuain features in the central role for Maurizio Sarri with Ronaldo out wide. Mario Mandzukic, Federico Bernardeschi and Paulo Dybala will figure in the Old Lady’s rotation as well.
On the other hand, Cristiano’s counterpart with Serbia is much more critical to his managers’ plans at club and country. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s 86th-minute salvo amounted to half of Serbia’s goals on the day. His five in six matches for Fulham account for 50% of the Cottagers’ 2019/20 output. An injury or dip in form from the Serb would be far more damaging to Ljubisa Tumbokovic and Scott Parker than losing Ronaldo would be to Fernando Santos and Sarri.
In fact, Mitrovic was the only out-and-out forward named to Tumbokovic’s squad for this international window. The ageing Portuguese superstar remains productive at an elite level but, at 34, isn't going to score 30 goals again, much less 40. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Serb is maturing into an ace who could reach 30 goals in the right squad.
Fulham can count themselves lucky to have kept their number nine after returning to the Championship this term. Eleven goals and three assists for the second-worst side in the Premier League in 2018/19 prove Mitrovic belongs in the top flight. He could have walked into and improved the starting XI on any of the clubs outside the Premier League top six save perhaps for Everton.
His style probably has something to do with the lack of suitors. He’s a 20lb sledgehammer in a modern game that seeks surgical precision. His goal against Portugal was typically violent. Whereas Ronaldo ran onto a perfect through ball and subtly redirected it past the hopelessly late Serbian goalkeeper, Mitrovic simply blasted into the roof of the net from eight or nine yards. His strength on and off the ball would make an old-school centre-half jealous.
Mitrovic bearing down is the stuff of nightmares for contemporary defenders expected to play out from the back. Chances are they will pay even if they can get off a decent pass. And forget about getting the ball away from him before his teammates arrive in support. His first touch is sublime. There is no getting through him to win the ball. Deficiency in those departments is what led to Romelu Lukaku’s sale from Manchester United to Inter. It’s the hole in Tammy Abraham’s game at Chelsea. Mitrovic is as thuggish as they come but he’s also cunning and clinical.
Fulham sit sixth in the Championship after a half-dozen games. With their Serbian striker leading the line, there’s no reason the Cottagers can’t hold fight their way into the playoffs and quite possibly an immediate return to the Premier League. If they do, they’ll need to build around their number nine in much smarter fashion than they did last season. If the London club don't return to the top flight in 2020/21, Mitrovic should move on. He’s not Cristiano Ronaldo but he doesn’t belong in the second tier either.