If there was ever a game that encapsulated why Slavisa Jokanovic was so keen to bring in Aleksandar Mitrovic right at the end of the January transfer window, last night’s battle with Bristol City at Ashton Gate was it. The Serbian striker relished the physical battle with Nathan Baker and Aden Flint and had all the attributes to win the tussle hands down. Jokanovic showed last season through his persistence with Chris Martin that he sees a hold-up centre forward who can deal with the rough and tumble of the Championship as the key to making his pretty football and fluid 4-3-3 formation succeed in this division – and Mitrovic is certainly an updgrade on the surly Scottish striker.
Having been discarded by Rafa Benitez due to his fiery nature, the former Anderlecht and Partizan Belgrade forward is desperate for game time to a construct a compelling pace to Mladen Krstaji? that he deserves to lead the line for his country at the World Cup in Russia this summer. Regular minutes will help improve his sharpness but what will really seal the deal are goals and Mitrovic’s first for Fulham arrived after less than a quarter of an hour. He has already showed that he is more than just a bruiser up top and his intelligent run, to peel away from a deep Bristol City defence at the back post as Cyrus Christie delivered a sumptuous cross with the outside of his foot, left him with the simplest of tap-ins. With a poacher’s instinct like that, it could be the first of many.
It is easy to see why Mitrovic has been a firm favourite with fans at all of the clubs he’s played for. His will to win shines through in the way he approaches those battles with centre backs and it isn’t irony when he describes himself as ‘a typical English centre forward’. Such a tag actually understates Mitrovic’s considerable technical ability – his first touch is often deft enough to bring team-mates into play – and, when he gets his head up, the big man can spread the play effectively as well. He’s much more mobile than some of the lumps who led the line in the domestic game over the past few decades as well. You can see from the first bulldozing run at the Bristol City defence that culminated in a speculative shot from 20 yards that Flint and Baker knew they’d be in a game.
Perhaps that’s why the two home centre back engaged in a hour’s worth of wrestling with Mitrovic, or ‘rugby’ as Jokanovic called it afterwards. A more assertive referee than Jeremy Simpson might have taken action against the roughouse tactics. The added intensity to the battle seemed to spur the Serbian on, although he’ll be disappointed that he failed to add to his tally in the second half. He cursed himself after making a prodigious leap to meet Stefan Johansen’s corner in front of the near post, but failing to direct his header on the target. The striker covered plenty of ground to try and meet Ryan Sessegnon’s low cross after a dreadful mistake by Flint – sliding in six yards out and missing the connection by fractions.
Once the disappointment of only taking a point from one of our promotion rivals subsided, I was struck by the agility and extra dimension Mitrovic now brings to Fulham’s attacking options. Once he was replaced by Aboubakar Kamara with a quarter of an hour to go last night, the intensity of the visitors’ attacks subsided to almost nothing. Rui Fonte brings a totally different skill set to the table, but the Portuguese forward would have been muscled out of most of it last night. Centre halves know they are in a real battle against Mitrovic – and that he represents a serious danger in the penalty area. That’s why Sessegnon found such room to put Fulham in front against Aston Villa last weekend, but John Terry and James Chester were preocuppied with shackling the Serbian.
You fancy Mitrovic will get sharper with every outing – and the Championship defenders won’t fancy facing a strong forward who has two goals to reach by May. He’ll want to do his country proud in Russia, but Mitrovic has already voiced his confidence that Fulham can make a real push for the Premier League this year. If he proves Benitez wrong in the process, that will just be the icing on the cake.