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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Is Aleksandar Mitrovic really in the same class as Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero?

High praise came from new Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri after the Serbian's two goals against Southampton

In a week when football said goodbye to a player who was often described as one of the world's best strikers, there's a new contender for the elite group.

Few could argue with the qualities of Didier Drogba which helped earn him a cabinet full of trophies during a career spent largely at Chelsea.

Drogba was originally identified by Claudio Ranieri (so he says) at Chelsea while playing for Marseille before joining the London club when the Italian was replaced by Jose Mourinho in 2004.

And Ranieri, newly-installed at Fulham in the Premier League, believes he has seen a player of "world class" status in his current team, in the form of Aleksandar Mitrovic.

What did Ranieri say?

He was speaking after his first game as Fulham manager, an exciting 3-2 win over Southampton in which Mitrovic scored twice - a well-taken glancing header and a sharp volley from inside the penalty area.

Ranieri has been in management for more than three decades and is best known for pulling off the most unlikely of achievements by guiding Leicester City to the Premier League title in 2016. So knows a thing of two about footballers.

“For me Mitrovic is one of the best strikers in Europe ... When I say Europe, let’s say the world," he said.

“He’s only 24 years old, he’s a fantastic player. It’s important to give the ball to him because he can play as a platform but also as a goalscorer. When the ball arrives in the box he’s very, very close to the goal. It’s important to give him a lot of chances to score.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 24: Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Fulham gives instructions during the Premier League match between Fulham FC and Southampton FC at Craven Cottage on November 24, 2018 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri gives instructions. Getty Images

What evidence is there to back this claim up?

His double at the weekend may have been his first Premier League goals in six matches, but statistically he is having an impressive season. He has seven in the league, placing him one behind leaders Sergio Aguero and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and level with Raheem Sterling, Eden Hazard, Mohamed Salah, Harry Kane and Glenn Murray. All for a team which sits bottom of the table.

Then you need to add in the six he has scored for Serbia in four Uefa Nations League matches, making it 13 goals in 18 appearances this season.

By way of comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo has nine league goals in Serie A for Juventus at an average of a goal every 130 minutes, while Genoa's Krzysztof Piatek has 10 at one every 111 minutes.

In La Liga, Lionel Messi has nine, a goal every 97 minutes, while Girona's Cristhian Stuani leads the way in Spain with 10, an impressive strike rate of a goal every 85 minutes.

Mitrovic's goals meanwhile have come on average every 167 minutes - a minute more than Kane - and he has the most headed goals by a Premier League player this season.

It's not just about goals though

Indeed, Mitrovic has been making headlines for hitting the back of the net, but he isn't your archetypal goal poacher.

He relishes a physical battle, although his exuberance has been known to boil over and result in red cards. “My father said I would be a criminal or a kick boxer,” he told The Telegraph in an interview in 2016.

Ranieri says he gives Fulham "a platform" from which to build attacks, and describes him as "amazing in the box". There's certainly similarities with Drogba in this respect - a striker with the presence to lead the line on his own.

It was Drogba who was regarded as the master of the lone striker when Premier League sides began phasing out the classic English 4-4-2 formation in preference for the 4-3-3, which reverts to more of a 4-5-1 when team don't have the ball.

FILE PHOTO: Football - Bayern Munich v Chelsea 2012 UEFA Champions League Final - Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany - 19/5/12 Didier Drogba celebrates after scoring the first goal for Chelsea Mandatory Credit: Action Images / Carl Recine/File Photo
Didier Drogba celebrates after scoring for Chelsea in the 2012 Champions League final. Action Images

The top sides in the Premier League are still using this system - Chelsea with Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, Manchester United with Romelu Lukaku, Tottenham with Kane, Arsenal with Aubameyang or Lacazette, Liverpool with Roberto Firmino and Manchester City with Aguero.

Flanked by 18-year-old Ryan Sessegnon and the experienced Andre Schurrle, Fulham certainly have an interesting mix.

Did he impress during the World Cup?

Yes, particularly against Switzerland when he scored. Former England defender Rio Ferdinand, who was working as a pundit, noted how Mitrovic "occupied two centre halves" and suggested he wouldn't have enjoyed playing against him. Serbia were knocked out in the group stage, but Mitrovic left the tournament with his reputation enhanced.

Playing in the Championship with Fulham during the second half of last season clearly did him no harm.

What went wrong at Newcastle?

Manager Rafa Benitez saw him in a different light. Without actually saying it directly, Benitez simply didn't think Mitrovic had what it takes to score goals regularly in the Premier League. He instead preferred to sign Salomon Rondon on loan from West Bromwich Albion and persevere with mis-firing Joselu.

"Each player has his own environment and they can do well in one team and maybe not as well in the other one," Benitez said in September. "We have to make a decision in terms of what we needed and we knew what we needed, that’s it, now we have to move forward."

Mitrovic himself admitted that Newcastle's counter-attacking style didn't suit a striker weighing in at 90kgs, with him preferring to be in the box awaiting crosses.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - JANUARY 13: Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez reacts during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Swansea City at St. James Park on January 13, 2018 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez. Getty Images

So, is he world class?

If he continues his current form and keeps Fulham in the Premier League then it is difficult to deny Ranieri's assertion. His style may not be the prettiest and is almost a throwback to the game decades ago, but he is proving effective and has developed something of a cult following at Craven Cottage.

He is short of the class of Kane and Aguero. However, ask many people who they would rather have in their team right now - Mitrovic or Romelu Lukaku - they would answer with the former.

Chelsea have been linked with a move as Morata plays well in fits and starts while Giroud is now 32 years old and has just two goals in 13 appearances this season.

The big clubs will come calling next summer if Mitrovic can keep a lid on his discipline and continue to score regularly. He may need to prove though that he can play in a variety of systems and not just one solely set up around his own strengths.

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