Mitrovic: Shearer, Drogba and Diego Costa inspired me

  • Aleksandar Mitrovic is the joint-top scorer in European qualifying

  • He discusses his role models and the world's best current strikers

  • 'Mitro' reveals Russia 2018 regrets and talks Qatar 2022 hopes

Serbia trailed Group A rivals Portugal 2-0 at half-time in their FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifier in March. Then everything changed, with Aleksandar Mitrovic pulling one back for the home side and setting them on the way to a vital 2-2 draw in their second game in the section. In scoring against the Portuguese, Mitrovic, who had kicked off Serbia’s campaign with a brace in a 3-2 defeat of Republic of Ireland, became his country’s all-time leading marksman. His tally of 39 goals at the time beat a record held for 65 years by Stjepan Bobek, who represented the former Yugoslavia.

The Fulham player did not stop there, however, netting braces in victories over Azerbaijan and Luxembourg to move level with Memphis Depay as the leading marksman in European qualifying for Qatar 2022. With 43 international goals now to his name, the imposing 27-year-old spoke to ahead of the White Eagles’ upcoming Group A matches against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan, the prelude to an all-important trip to Lisbon on the final matchday in November. How did it feel to become your country’s all-time leading goalscorer? Aleksandar Mitrovic: I was very proud. It’s huge for me and my family. The record had stood since 1956, and it was an incredible feeling, one of the best moments of my life and my career. How long had you had your eyes on the record? I’d been thinking about it since I was young, since I started playing for the national team. There are some big names who’ve worn the jersey before me and they didn’t manage it. I’ve always believed in my abilities and have worked hard to make this dream come true. Which is your favourite of the 43 you’ve scored for the national team? I love them all. Every goal is different and special in its own way. If I had to choose, though, I’d go for my very first, against Croatia (a header from a corner in a 1-1 draw in the Brazil 2014 qualifiers on 6 September 2013) and the goal against Ireland (a sublime 25-metre lob in that 3-2 win on 24 March 2021).

Do you think stats are important? Football is passion more than anything else. I don’t get obsessed with stats. It’s always great to have nice stats but I play out of love for the game. That’s what pushes me to keep working hard and do my very best. As soon as I stop feeling that, I’ll retire. Which strikers inspired you when you were young? I’ve always watched the best, especially at the start of my career. It’s allowed me to understand the game better. I loved watching the likes of Alan Shearer and Didier Drogba. Later, Diego Costa was an inspiration for me. They’re the three I’ve most enjoyed watching. I wouldn’t say I’ve got the same style as them because they’re all legends, but I always wanted to play like them and be like them. And what about now? When it comes to stats, no one can top Ronaldo, who’s out on his own. Lionel Messi’s up there too. They’re both on another level and there’s no-one who can compare with them. Then come Robert Lewandowski, Romelu Lukaku, Edinson Cavani, Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah, to name but a few. There are so many good strikers around today and there’s always something you can take inspiration from when you watch them. I always try to learn something when I watch a game, whether it’s at the very top level or the lower leagues.

With seven goals, you’re the joint-top scorer in the European qualifiers with Memphis Depay. What’s the secret behind your impressive form? My secret? I don’t really have one. It just comes down to hard work and dedication. I’m full of confidence right now and I’ve got some great players around me too. I’m lucky to be playing with people who like setting up their team-mates, who prefer to play the final pass than to score. When you’ve got the likes of Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Filip Kostic and Nemanja Radonjic around you, you know when you walk out on the pitch that you’re going to get decent service because they can keep playing those final balls. I just have to stay focused and convert the chances when they come my way. Back in March, Serbia staged a second-half comeback to share the points with Portugal in a 2-2 draw. Has that result given you the confidence to push for top spot in the group and direct qualification for Qatar 2022? We played really well against them. They had two chances and scored two goals. I wouldn’t say we were the better team, but we did have the better chances. We respect them. They’re a great team full of great players, but that game showed us we can match them. We’ve got two tough matches to play before we face them again: against Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. We have to concentrate on them first. They can both play and they can cause us problems. We’re going to try and put ourselves in the best possible position before that last match against the Portuguese. This is your third World Cup qualification campaign. Is this current team the best you’ve played in? All the teams I’ve played in have been good and have had good players, but I think we’re on an upward curve this time. We’ve got a new coach this year and we’re playing good football. There’s a good energy in and around the team and we’re playing entertaining, attacking football. We’re ambitious in every game, no matter who we play, and with a little luck we’ll make it to the World Cup.

What memories do you have of your first World Cup experience at Russia 2018? There’s no better feeling than representing your country at a major tournament. I’ve got some very happy memories of it and some less happy ones because we came close to reaching the second round. One thing that stands out for me is the 1-0 win over Costa Rica in our first match, and I was pleased to get a goal against Switzerland [a match Serbia lost 2-1]. The overall experience was amazing. The trip, the preparations, and that feeling before the first match… I hope I can experience it all again in the future. Do you feel that you missed out at Russia 2018? We’ve still got a bitter taste from that tournament. We had a really good side, and on paper I think we were the best team in the group behind Brazil. We made too many mistakes and didn’t have much luck. We weren’t able to fulfil all the potential we had.