The 25-year-old flopped at Liverpool but has returned home to Belgrade to revive his career
When Lazar Markovic signed forLiverpoolin July 2014, it was a supposed to represent a mark of intent from a side that had thrilled thePremier Leagueduring a glorious but doomed title charge just months before.
Brendan Rodgers’ sidehad just come within a Steven Gerrard slip on the Anfield turf of winning a fist top-flight title for 24 years. They’d scored 101 goals in the league alone, 61 of them from the devastating forward trio ofRaheem Sterling,Daniel SturridgeandLuis Suarez. PFA Player of the Year Suarez soon departed forBarcelona, but the signing of Markovic from Benfica for £20m was meant to have been one strand of a blueprint of instant renewal, the chance for Rodgers to show he was dragging the club back to its former imperiousness rather than leeching off the fruits of a once-in-a-generation crop of attacking stars (the team, it should be remembered, let in 50 goals in the league despite finishing second, which should have been a sign of the direction the wind was blowing).
Since signing for Liverpool, Markovic has played just 64 league games in six years and for seven different clubs. His time at Anfield was finally brought to its formal end when the club released him to Fulham in 2019, where he lasted all of six months, playing just once as the team were relegated. Now, his career has come full circle – he rejoined his first club Partizan Belgrade in the summer, and on Thursday will renew his acquaintanceship with English football whenManchester United visit the Serbian capital in the Europa League.
Markovic, though still only 25, looks set be remembered – if he is remembered – as a player for whom the attachment of a large transfer fee and the eager gamble of big European name turned out to be a crooked distortion of his potential. He was only 20 when he signed for Liverpool after a single, relatively promising season with Benfica in which he helped the team to the Portuguese title, but his credentials never seemed a likely fit for the Reds’ class of 2014.
The stand-out buy of a summer in which Rodgers splashed almost double the £65m the club received for Suarez, the Serb was quick and leggy but without the delivery or touch of the calibre of player he was brought in to replace. With Suarez gone and expensive acquisitions misfiring (Mario Balotelli and Ricky Lambert scored three Premier League goals between them – another £20m incautiously squandered), few were surprised when the team drifted down the table after that, back into the obscurity that the manager had briefly promised to salvage them from.
Yet the Serbian international never cut a convincing shape as a journeyman, either. He failed to settle during loan spells at Fenerbahce, where injury cut short his single season in the Turkish league, and at Sporting back in Portugal, whereas his failure to divert Hull City from their fate of relegation from the Premier League in 2017 confirmed the suspicion that neither his physicality nor his skill were sufficient to leave an impact in England.
Whether a return to familiar surroundings at Partizan – and the only club where his time was an unqualified success – will usher a coming of age for Markovic is not a matter likely to garner much traction in Europe, despite the number of leagues the player has however briefly called home. Far more possible he will find he is finally playing at something like his true level – but United should be wary of the danger that Partizan’s returning prodigal son could still pose. One should never underestimate a man with nothing to lose.
There’s also the fact that Markovic is already enjoying his best goalscoring season in league football since before joining Liverpool, buoyed by three goals in his first four games back in Serbia. Yes, the level is lower, but momentum is a self-optimising force. And what greater way to re-ingratiate himself to the Belgrade faithful than by helping take down the biggest opponents to visit Partizan Stadium since Inter Milan came here in 2012?
And of course, there remains the possibility that it’s not too late for the Serbia international to make his mark. Football is resplendent with examples of players who took a wrong turn early and went back to their roots to right the damage.
In Belgrade, United may yet find that the spirit of Anfield still moves in this brief son of the Mersey.