Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was literally about to sign for Fiorentina on July 25, 2015 when the Serbian broke down in tears, confessing, “I’m sorry but I can’t. I really can’t.”
Viola sporting director Daniele Prade was as annoyed as he was astounded. He refused to try to change the Genk midfielder’s mind.
“We don’t beg anyone to come here,” Prade declared. “Sergej asked us to hold off on doing the medical so that he could speak with his girlfriend and then decide.
“But, for us, that wasn’t on. If he has issues outside of football to resolve, then we’re going to take a step back and say, ‘Enough’.”
There were subsequent claims that Milinkovic-Savic had already agreed personal terms with Lazio and, therefore, felt guilty going back on a promise made to sporting director Igli Tare to move to Rome.
Either way, an irate Prade was uninterested in trying to placate a player that he felt had embarrassed both him and the club.
“He’s not convinced, he’s hesitant and we cannot wait around to accommodate a kid of 20 years of age,” he sniped.
In hindsight, perhaps the Viola should have been a little more patient and understanding – and not just because Milinkovic-Savic, rather typically, opened his Serie A account against Fiorentina, in January 2016.
At the time of his arrival in Florence, Milinkovic-Savic was, as Prade acknowledged, still very young.
Fiorentina’s hardline response to his 11th-hour breakdown was perhaps justified but it wasn’t particularly shrewd, as it ultimately paved the way for Lazio to sign the Serbian the very next day for €9 million and Fiorentina’s loss has proved the Biancocelesti’s gain. Indeed, that gain could be about to get a whole lot bigger.
As well as having played a colossal part in Lazio’s return to prominence in Serie A over the past two years – last season they finished a surprising fifth, above both Milan clubs, and reached the final of the Coppa Italia – Milinkovic-Savic has also caught the attention of Europe’s elite.
In response, Lazio have slapped a €100m price tag on his head. Manchester United, among others, are now considering paying it.
According to Vittorio Campanile of the podcast ‘Lazio Lounge’, Milinkovic-Savic would be worth another club-record fee for the Old Trafford outfit: “He has it all: he is big, he is strong, he is skilled and he is built to succeed in modern football.”
Certainly, Milinkovic-Savic has been blessed physically, which can be attributed to the fact that his father Nikoka is a former professional footballer, while his mother Milana played basketball – it is also worth noting that his brother Vanja plays for Torino as a goalkeeper.
He has long been a prodigious talent, too. His agent, former Chelsea striker Mateja Kezman, decided to sign him up after watching just 10 minutes of Milinkovic-Savic in action during a training session with Vojvodina’s youth team.
It was the right call. Milinkovic-Savic broke into the senior side at just 18 and earned a move to Belgian outfit Genk just seven months later.
He adapted quickly to the Jupiler Pro League but it was his performances at under-age level for Serbia that really marked him out as one of the most exciting young players in world football.
Milinkovic-Savic had already tasted European Championship glory at Under-19 level in 2013 when he helped his country win the Under-20 World Cup in the summer of 2015.
His dominant displays in the Serbian midfield earned him both the tournament’s Bronze Ball but also the attention of a number of top clubs, principally Fiorentina and Lazio.
He may have handled that particular situation poorly but he has since proved his mettle by almost always shining in the Biancolesti’s biggest games, developing a particular propensity for delivering in the derby.
Indeed, he scored the opening goal in both legs of Lazio’s Coppa Italia semi-final success over Roma earlier this year, which only further endeared him to an already adoring Curva Nord.
For the Biancocelesti faithful, Milinkovic-Savic is already priceless but whether he would really be worth €100m to United – or anyone else – is open to debate.
He is both brave on the ball and in the tackle: no midfielder has taken part in or won more duels in Serie A this season. He is also excellent in the air, as underlined by the fact that he ranks second among midfielders for aerial duels won.
However, his passing needs to improve dramatically – he is the seventh worst midfielder in Serie A in terms of possession lost – and he also gives away too many silly free-kicks.
Still, Milinkovic-Savic is acutely aware of his flaws: “I’m still young and can make mistakes.”
There are obvious comparisons with Paul Pogba during the Frenchman’s first few seasons at Juventus and, as Campanile points out, Milinkovic-Savic is a versatile, talented midfielder who is getting better all the time.
“He can play in different positions and still be a key player. He can play near the striker as a trequartista or as a more orthodox central midfielder, protecting the back four.
“I really believe he is set to become the best midfielder in Europe.”
There is every chance that he could fulfil that potential at Old Trafford, too.
Juventus are interested in signing Milinkovic-Savic, having identified the need to reinvigorate their midfield in 2018, but the player is clearly open to moving to Manchester.
“Mourinho is the best manager in the world,” he enthused in January. “He’s intelligent. And simply the best.”
Mourinho would, therefore, be advised to wrap up a deal as quickly as possible for Milinkovic-Savic. Otherwise, it could all end in tears.