Tom Kundert profiles the Serbian sensation that has Chelsea - among other Premier League clubs - gazing longingly from a distance....
The 60-second story
Labelled a global star in waiting, Lazar Markovic arrived at Benfica as a 19-year-old last summer from Partizan Belgrade via a convoluted transfer involving Chelsea (more on that below). He has lived up to the billing.
He whetted the appetite in pre-season with some dazzling displays, opened his account in Benfica’s second game of season, and announced himself in style with a stunning goal after a mesmerising run in the Lisbon derby against Sporting one week later. The memorable goal in one of the biggest games in the Portuguese football calendar highlighted a characteristic that is set to stand the young Serbian in good stead – everything points to him being a big-game player.
Picking the ball up deep, either on the flanks or in the middle of the pitch, Markovic is a nightmare to defend against, running at full tilt, jinking one way then the next, always on the lookout for an incisive pass or a quick combination play to burst through on goal himself.
Why you need to know him
He may have hit the ground running, but Markovic’s form then went into something of a lull. Several analysts and many Benfica fans questioned Jorge Jesus’ perseverance with him as a starter after a series of non-descript performances. “Markovic is a football rebel and people have to show patience with players like him,” responded Jesus.
He was proved right. Since the turn of the year the young Serbian has been far more consistent and is now one of the “darlings” of the Estádio da Luz faithful. Such a thrilling player to watch was always going to be a crowd-pleaser provided there was an end product. Seven goals and numerous assists in 39 games are remarkable statistics for an attacking midfielder who was still a teenager in March, especially when one considers it is his debut season in a foreign country.
A wonderfully skilful dribbler, his goal against Sporting early in the season, when he danced past five opponents, drew comparisons with Maradona. With lightning speed and tight control, Markovic is almost unstoppable if given space to run into.
He is a creative and accurate passer of the ball, even when travelling fast. In one-on-one situations he is a nerveless finisher even when space and time is at a premium, as shown by another sublime goal – his audacious chip over lanky Vitória de Guimarães stopper Douglas from all of 10 yards out.
Yet to fully fill out, he is somewhat frail and often struggles to complete the 90 minutes, especially in physically demanding matches. Like many overtly gifted players, Markovic has a tendency to “go missing” for periods in games and some coaches may consider him a luxury player, especially as he offers little defensively.
Ljubinko Drulovic, Serbia coach: “Markovic is a huge talent and has the ability to be one of Europe’s top players in the next few years. He has special talents in terms of speed and technique. He can decide a game on his own. He’s set to become a very important player for Serbia.” Avram Grant, ex-Chelsea coach: “I can say that apart from Ronaldo and Messi, Markovic is one of the best talents I’ve ever seen at 19 years of age.”
Did you know
Markovic does not celebrate his goals. “I never celebrate my goals. I don’t know how it began, I just never have, even when I was a kid. Maybe one day I’ll change, but to be honest I don’t waste time thinking about the subject. Every goal I score is enormously significant for me, even if I don’t celebrate it.”
What happens next?
The mysterious mechanics of Markovic’s transfer to Benfica last year have never been explicitly explained by an official source - it was initially reported that the player had arrived in Lisbon on loan from Chelsea, although hours later a statement was released by Benfica confirming he had signed a five-year deal. Portuguese sports paper Record provided a plausible explanation recently, reporting that Benfica purchased 50% ownership for €6.5 million, with the other 50% in the hands of a fund managed by the Israeli agent Pini Zahavi. Chelsea are said to have been included in the negotiations and have an option to buy Benfica’s share for just €7.5 million, while if Benfica sell to another club they are free to set any price.
The full story will probably only be clarified (or maybe not) when Markovic moves on. Benfica fans will be hoping that is not any time soon.
Shooting 7 • Heading 6 • Passing 8 • Tackling 5 • Pace 9 • Dribbling 9 • Creativity 8 • Work-rate 5