Lazar Markovic says “I play like I talk”, and if you judge him just on his conversation, you would imagine that he plays with considerable confidence.
Liverpool’s new £20 million midfielder is confident that they can win the Premier League and he will in time be acclaimed as one of the best players in it. He does not say it outlandishly. This is not Mido surveying the Egypt squad before the Africa Cup of Nations and announcing: “I am a Premier League footballer, they are amateurs.” It is just matter-of-fact; a quiet statement of intent.
Markovic first began making statements of intent when he was very young. While still a teenager, he won three Serbian championships with Partizan Belgrade and followed it up by winning the double with Benfica. Ask him if this rush of silverware is where his confidence stems from and the reply is “most likely”.
Like many of the players in whom Brendan Rodgers invests his faith, he arrives not quite fully formed as a player. You can see what attracted the manager when Benfica beat Tottenham 3-1 in the Europa League in March. There were electric flashes of pace and skill. But the final pass or the decisive shot was missing.
Compared to another imminent new signing, the altogether more complete player Mario Balotelli, the 20-year-old Serb may already be a little more mature as a person. But his family, who have accompanied him to Merseyside, remain close.
He says he was always bound to be a footballer; there were no other options. Cacak, a small city a couple of hours from Belgrade, is famous for its monasteries and producing footballers, and Lazar was not destined to become a monk.
His father was a serious amateur, his elder brother Filip, like Lazar, was signed by Partizan and Benfica but only played for the reserves. “Partizan saw my brother first,” says Lazar. “He was a big talent but, because he was still young, the family were not keen for him to go to Belgrade on his own, so I ended up going with him.
“They were more interested in my brother at first but they knew about the family and followed us, so I ended up playing for Partizan. I started playing [for the first team] at 17 and won a few titles very quickly.”
Lazar agreed to go to Benfica partly because the then Manchester United captain, Nemanja Vidic, said they had the most fervent fans in Portugal and partly because they agreed to take Filip.
Lazar’s hero as a boy was Gianfranco Zola. Chelsea had long been tracking his progress and had a first option if Benfica decided to sell. Markovic was always likely to come to England – the surprise was that he went to Anfield not Stamford Bridge.
“I am not money oriented,” he says. “If I were motivated by money, I would have gone somewhere else, but I liked Liverpool, it appealed to me. I talk to Nemanja all the time but he wasn’t the reason I went to Liverpool. I made my own decision.
“I watched Liverpool all the time last season. They were very good and luck played its part as to why they didn’t win the League. They should have been champions. I was voted one of the best players in Serbia and Portugal and I hope I will be recognised as one of the best in the Premier League. I believe I will.”
A clue to why Markovic may have found Anfield a more fruitful arena than Stamford Bridge lies in the personalities of the two managers. Jose Mourinho tends to buy ready-made footballers; his treatment of the young Balotelli at Internazionale was testament to his impatience with players who need developing.
As someone who made his name as a youth-team coach under Mourinho, Rodgers has very different methods. Much of his spending since arriving on Merseyside has been on young, technically gifted and often slightly built footballers – Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi, Samed Yesil and Iago Aspas, None has made any real impact, and of that type of player, only Philippe Coutinho could be counted an unqualified success. Markovic might be the second.
A man just out of his teens moving country for the third time in as many years might be expected to start slowly. That Lazar learnt Portuguese during his year in Lisbon meant he could talk to Liverpool’s Brazilian pair, Coutinho and Lucas Leiva. He laughs that Steven Gerrard has never stopped giving him advice.
One piece of advice might be to control his temper. Markovic was named in the Europa League team of the year but he watched the final from the stands in Turin, dismissed in the semi-final by Mark Clattenburg for fighting on the bench with Juventus’s Mirko Vucinic.
“It was a mistake,” he said. “The other guy is a friend. I was trying to calm the situation down, be the peacemaker. We did appeal but it was no use. I don’t think my friend helped me out much.”
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