Dusan Vlahovic’s 33 goals for Fiorentina in 2021 have propelled him to stardom and alerted Premier League sides to a potential coup. What makes him so special, and could he be the next young striker to dominate European football?
“I am the Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Belgrade, I will play for the biggest clubs.”
Valeri Bojinov was leading the line for Partizan as he witnessed a pimply 15-year-old become the club’s youngest-ever player, goalscorer and debutant in Belgrade’s Eternal derby against Red Star.
Week after week, Vlahovic repeated his aspirations to Bojinov. It wasn’t long until the former Manchester City striker urged then-Fiorentina sporting director Italo Corvino to fork out £1.7m for his young understudy.
“He was crazy, really crazy,” Bojinov said. “But I liked his arrogance. I thought he would become a strong player.”
The Serb tiptoed his way into Florence upon his 18th birthday and immediately did what was best to endear himself to the locals: learning Italian by day and scoring goals at night.
Then, when Inter Milan came to town in December 2019, Vlahovic picked his moment. After 91 gruelling minutes against the champions-elect and best defence in Italy, he peeled away from his marker in his own half, sprinted past the last man and curled a shot in at the far corner.
Since then, his rise has been meteoric. His 47 goals in Italy so far have signalled a watershed moment in Fiorentina’s recent history, allowing them to return to challenge for Europe after one of their worst-ever sides were spared – twice – from relegation.
Upstaging Zlatan in his “home”
That strike against Inter has since become one of his trademark moments but what really sets Vlahovic apart is the variety of his goals, especially the 36 which came in Serie A in the last 13 months.
Despite an imposing 6ft 3in frame, he has only two headed goals to show for it, and his most defining strikes have been a showpiece of his athleticism and shooting from any range. His shot conversion rate is one of the highest in Italy and that includes free-kicks and penalties – over which he retains a 100 per cent record.
There’s more to him than meets the eye, too. As Bojinov discovered, his hunger to get to the very top is the driving force behind his development. What transpires from his interviews and body language is this innate appetite for success which make the parallels with a young Zlatan seem befitting.
When Fiorentina hosted AC Milan in November, Vlahovic crossed paths with his proclaimed idol and on the pitch, it was a case of “whatever you can do, I can do better”. Each player scored a brace but it was the Serb’s that won the game – in that moment, his immense potential intersected with Ibrahimovic’s timeless excellence.
After scoring his second, Vlahovic pointed down to the Artemio Franchi turf as if to say “this is my home”. He made it in Florence aged just 21, and he knew it when he started being uttered in the same sentence as Gabriel Batistuta.
For all the love he received, and despite the board’s offer to make him the highest-paid player in club history, it’s almost certain he will leave the city in the same fashion as Batigol – with a big move to a title-winning side.
The wise alternative to Haaland?
If 2020 was the year of Erling Haaland, 2021 belonged to Vlahovic. His 33 Serie A goals were bettered only by Robert Lewandowski in Europe’s top five leagues and allowed him to match the Italian record set by Cristiano Ronaldo in a calendar year. Not bad for someone who was emulating CR7’s celebration a few years back.
Perhaps what defines Vlahovic best is the frightening speed at which he has burned bridges to morph into the perfect prototype of a modern striker, something reminiscent of his big Norwegian peer.
“Maybe he’s only quicker than me, but we’re neck and neck on the rest,” Vlahovic told DAZN.
Tall, physical, athletic, impudent, cold-blooded, bullish, constantly hungry for more and born days into the new millennium: it really does seem like the two left-footed sharpshooters were made out of the same mould.
But while Haaland is more of a box player and gets involved in the team’s build-up or as the provider, Vlahovic is a more traditional target man who likes to play on the shoulders of defenders and gets on the end of the attacking chain.
The race for Haaland will duly heat up in June when his reported 75m Euros (£62.5m) release clause is activated and, by his agent Mino Raiola’s own admission, there are only four clubs that he could consider joining – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.
So with all options still wide open and 18 months remaining on his contract, it feels like Vlahovic could spark an even bigger battle for an even smaller fee in the summer.
His natural career progression and physical qualities make the Premier League – and Champions League – the logical next step in his career. Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle have already been linked with a move but there will be more suitors come June. The time will be ripe for Vlahovic himself to pick the next stage of his glittering career.