Benched for relegation-fearing Fulham, Aleksandar Mitrovic is the most in-form international player

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 1. travnja 2021.

Benched for relegation-fearing Fulham, Aleksandar Mitrovic is the most in-form international player

In the last six games Aleksandar Mitrovic played for Fulham this season, the striker recorded 124 minutes of game time. While on the international front for Serbia, the target man has been one of the most in-form players in the world. During the first three World Cup qualifiers for the Qatar 2022 showdown, Fulham's third-choice forward has scored five goals.

More than that, Mitar, as he is called commonly in his Serbia, entered history books dating back to the days of Yugoslavia. In the first game of the qualifiers, against the Republic of Ireland, Mitrovic equalled his goal tally to the legend Stjepan Bobek by getting two goals, coming on as a substitute. Ensuring the much-needed win for the Eagles.

The second game of the qualifiers, against favoured Portugal, saw Mitrogol score Serbia’s first goal in the 2:2 draw and break the 65-year-old record the Croatian Bobek set playing for Yugoslavia. Back when it was all one big country. Serbia inherited all the records of Yugoslavia according to FIFA and UEFA.

Following the second match of the qualifiers, the bad-boy of football teared up when talking about the record, having a moment all football fans must’ve daydreamed at least once.

"I knew I'll take it at some point but the feeling when the ball went in is amazing. The images that went through my head when I was scoring was of my childhood... I don't know, really a phenomenal feeling. To me, the national team is the highest honour but to break the record old 65 years of which I dreamed as a child... I'm not really emotional but truly a phenomenal feeling," said Mitrovic while battling tears.

Mitrovic managed to push the record onwards with two goals in a hard-fought victory over Azerbaijan, once again being the country’s saviour. So far, the 26-year-old (yes, Mitrovic is 26) got to 41 goals in the 63 appearances for his national team. Bobek got to his tally in 63 games, so Mitar managed to reach history even faster than him. Leaving other Yugoslav legends behind him.

Like Milan Galic with 37 goals between 1959 and 1965. Of the more contemporary players in Yugoslavia's history, former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic is at the same count with 37 goals in his 102 appearances. While the former Real Madrid player and sporting director Predrag Mijatovic is ninth with 27 goals in 73 games. Both he and Savo played for the "transitional" Yugoslavia, the one without Croats, Slovenians, North Macedonians, and Bosniaks.

The much more successful Croatia didn't steer far away from Bobek's record past the break up either. The current FA's president Davor Suker got to 45 goals in 69 games while the second in line Mario Mandzukic fell short of Bobek by five goals whilst playing 89 matches in the checkered shirt.

But Mitrovic’s toppling of a record 65 years and at least three countries ago isn’t even the most impressive feat in the national team shirt. Because Fulham’s decommissioned cannon is on an impressive streak for Serbia.

Besides scoring five goals in the three matches of the World Cup qualifiers in 201 minutes total, Mitro has been going strong since mid-2016. In the last 45 games for Serbia, he scored 38 goals!

To make the streak even more red-hot, in the last 32 games for the Eagles, Mitrovic got to 31 goals! Nearly a goal every game for a side that hasn't been close to impressive as the powerful striker leading it. Missing out on the Euros, barely staying in UEFA Nations League B League.

Making Mitrovic's records all that more astounding having done it for a national team in which only one other player delivers constantly, his best partner, fortunately - Dusan Tadic.

For Comparison, the man gunning for the record of the best international scorer ever, Cristiano Ronaldo, got to 40 goals for his country in his 105 cap for Portugal! The UEFA Nations League 2018/2019 top scorer Mitrovic is now also leading the qualifiers goalscoring.

Yet, it has to be mentioned that it was Serbia's number nine who had the last failure in the elongated Euro 2021 qualifiers campaign. After going past the favoured Norway in the first play-off semi-finals, the Serbians didn’t manage to go past Scotland and book the fiercest game of the Euros by slotting in the group with Croatia. The penalty shootout ending with Mitrovic having his shot saved by the goalkeeper.

But with the game the team was displaying under the surprise-hire Ljubisa Tumbakovic, not many people in Serbia despaired about missing the tournament. Eventually, it did resolve for the better as the team is now led by one of the country’s biggest legends Dragan Stojkovic Piksi. Who demonstrated bravery rarely seen by the national team in attacking Portugal with a very offensive lineup.

Following his first games at the qualifiers, there’s hope and enthusiasm revolving around the national side. Which is a rare occurrence and hasn’t blossomed like this since the 2008 - 2010 stint under Radomir Antic. But still, most of that is due to the nation’s new hero Mitrovic.

Mitrovic is very much the first-choice striker for Serbia, regardless of who the manager is. Benching the €60,000,000 paid Real Madrid striker Luka Jovic and in front of the Fiorentina youngster Dusan Vlahovic who bagged 12 goals in Serie A this campaign.

Even when Mitrovic was pulling Fulham out of the Championship with 26 goals in 40 games, most scored by a player in that season, while Luka Jovic was fresh off his amazing year at Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga and Europa League, Mitar was still the first choice. Somewhat because of Jovic's questionable attitude at times, but mostly due to the listed credentials the 188 centimetres tall Mitrovic amassed.

As does his age, his height also surprises the uninitiated. The target man who scored 26% of his Serbia goals via headers is not even 188 centimetres tall. Putting him behind 12 of his national team friends on the height scale. Yet Mitrovic seems like one of the last of the dying bread of proper English football strikers. Not surprisingly, as his idol was Alan Shearer after all.

Of his 23 goals scored in the Premier League for Newcastle and Fulham, 11 came with aerial superiority of Mitrovic's headers. Yet, Fulham’s manager Scott Parker was quick to disregard Mitrovic by exiling him to the bench despite the two goals scored on the second matchday. But even more because of the mentioned valiancy in the Championship season when he was officially player of the season. Following the year in which he was a runner-up with 11 goals in the Premier League.

But the biggest blemish on Parker's choice are the results. If Fulham became a much-improved side, few could blame him, even in Serbia. But the Cottagers are set to bounce down to the Championship as they are in the relegation zone despite having a game more than their safer direct competitors.

Ivan Cavaleiro scored just one goal more than Mitrovic despite having spent 800 minutes more on the pitch In the Premier League. Ademola Lookman played in 1,100 minutes more than Mitrovic and only has two more goals than the Serbian. Lookman had four assists, Mitrovic the same, and Cavaleiro none.

Across all competitions, Mitrovic has the same number of goals as Cavaleiro, four more assists, while being only one goal behind the much-more used Lookman.

But Mitrovic battles on. He will never shed the reputation for hot headedness that is definitely still there, only controlled more. Even though his Fulham captain Tom Cairney named him the best player in the team back in the 2018/2019 season, while also lauding his work ethic. The team joked Mitar is the only one with a nine to five job as he spends that much time in the gym working on himself.

"I'm someone who hardly ever gives up. I'm persistent and I believe in my capabilities, quality, and hard work. Even though I didn't have a very good season, I knew that the hard work at training and after it, will come back to me," said the Serbian recently.

But the stubborn Mitrovic has been facing doubters even when he was a long way from being a man, certain in his worth. Even at his childhood club of Partizan Belgrade, a respected club in regards to youth development. The then director of the academy even threatened to rip his coaching diploma if Mitrovic becomes a player, refusing to sign him up. Luckily, the coaches working closely with the Smederevo-born striker convinced to give the headstrong kid a chance.

As volatile as his character might be, it’s what allows him to be a leader. It’s what made him score a goal against the fierce rivals Croatia when he was still a teen in his first start for the country.

His uncontainable energy that shows even when he’s watching his compatriot Novak Djokovic playing tennis is what in great part makes him a historic player. He is doing it for a side that doesn't have the luxury of buying players, it has a limited pool and a ton of backstage problems a weekly column couldn't describe in a year's time.

While Fulham did spend big on highly coveted players like the €30,000,000-paid Jean Micheal Seri. It’s more likely that Fulham’s issues stem from these misses and the manager’s conviction of his team choice than by Mitar limiting the team.

Which is the main sentiment coming from Parker apologists: that the team is far too one-dimensional with Mitrovic in it. Which isn’t the case for Antonio Conte’s Inter with a similar profile of a player in Romelu Lukaku. But the tactics of the Italian are tailored to such an anchor in attack and using him to pull the danger to the enemy’s goal. Truly, Inter is miles ahead of Fulham, but the recipe is there even if you can’t buy the top-shelf ingredients.

Since his debut for Serbia in 2013, Mitrovic worked under nine different managers and they all managed to get goals consistently out of Mitrovic. Despite the dubious quality some of them had or the inactivity in the job before getting to the national team's bench.

With the beautiful left-footed striker from the knee against Azerbaijan fresh in mind, it's hard to argue the 26-year-old is some brute, unpolished player who relies solely on physicality. Double-digit assists for Fulham, Newcastle, and Anderlecht also show his usability in a team setting.

Fulham's schedule in which they have to face Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United, besides a host of other tough games, suggest the team is sliding down to another season in the Championship.

Mitrovic played in the second division even before arriving at Craven Cottage, for his first English side Newcastle that disrespected him even more careless. Considering he was a testified Magpie long before there were rumours of his move there.

Now, Fulham is treating him similarly and even though he is content with his life in London, where he has a close friend in Crystal Palace's Luka Milivojevic, it can be expected that he won't, and shouldn't, stick around for another season outside the PL. Even if Parker starts playing him towards the end of the season for the wings of his recent successes.

By showing he can be as prolific a goalscorer for Serbia, Mitrovic proved he can be the first option for a solid, Europa League or possibly even Champions League side competing in the top five leagues. Mitrovic is a unique figure in football, both stylistically and mentally, to be wasted on the bench or in the Championship.


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