'I can get to Haaland's level' - Why on-fire Fiorentina forward Vlahovic could be Milan's new Ibrahimovic

Dusan Vlahovic Erling Haaland Zlatan Ibrahimovic GFX
Having recovered from a crisis of confidence, the Serbian striker is attracting attention from San Siro after 14 goals in his last 19 Serie A games

Dusan Vlahovic has rarely lacked confidence.

As a teenager at Partizan, he told former team-mate Valeri Bojinov that he was "the Belgrade Zlatan Ibrahimovic".

After netting a historic first-half hat-trick for Fiorentina in last month's 4-1 win at Benevento, he revealed that he was in his own Fantasy Football team.

"I'll get a lot of points today!" the powerful but nimble left-footed forward enthused in his post-match interview with Sky Sport Italia.

For Fantasy Football participants in Italy, Vlahovic has become an essential acquisition, which is remarkable given how badly he struggled during the first half of the season.

After netting six times during a patchy but promising 2019-20 campaign, Vlahovic had been expected to hit the ground running this term.

However, in Fiorentina's second game, against Inter at San Siro, Vlahovic missed a great chance to make it 4-2 to the visitors.

The Viola were ultimately undone by two late strikes from Romelu Lukaku and Danilo D'Ambrosio, leaving Vlahovic doubting himself for the first time in his young career.

The net result was a dismal return of just one goal from his first 10 appearances of the Serie A season. The usually cocksure Serbian striker was buckling under the pressure.

Dusan Vlahovic Franck Ribery Fiorentina GFX

"It weighed a lot, even for me," Vlahovic admitted to the Corriere dello Sport.

However, some words of encouragement from team-mate Franck Ribery proved integral to his turnaround. 

"When I was down, he spoke to me and told me to never give up," Vlahovic revealed. "That’s how I understood what it means to be a champion on the pitch and in life."

At the very least, Vlahovic is now starting to realise his enormous potential which had earned him inclusion in Goal's 2017 NXGN list of the most promising young players in the world.

Indeed, with his double against Atalanta last weekend, Vlahovic joined an exclusive club, becoming just the fourth player born since 2000, along with Jadon Sancho, Moise Kean and Erling Haaland, to score at least 20 goals in Europe's 'Big Five' leagues. 

And make no mistake about it: Vlahovic believes he belongs in such illustrious company. He is confident that he can reach the same level as Haaland, the most coveted young forward in the world right now.

“I watch him and I try to understand his finishing and how he moves," Vlahovic told La Repubblica. "Then, I focus on my strong points and my weaknesses. It may be presumptuous, but with commitment, I can get there too."

Dusan Vlahovic Erling Haaland Fiorentina GFX

He's certainly rediscovered his self-belief, thanks to a sensational scoring streak that began at the Artemio Franchi on December 16, in a game against Sassuolo.

With Fiorentina trailing midway through the first half, Ribery was felled in the area and Vlahovic stepped up to coolly convert the resulting penalty.

"It was like a breath of fresh air; it gave me life," he confessed. "From that moment it became easier. It took a lot of weight off. I worked harder every day with the coach and my team-mates."

And he is now reaping the benefits. 

Despite playing in a relegation-threatened team, Vlahovic has struck 14 times in his last 19 Serie A appearances to move joint-fifth in the top scorers' charts, alongside Lorenzo Insigne and, even more significantly, Ibrahimovic.

The legendary Swede had already taken notice of the Viola ace, though. The week after Vlahovic's treble at Benevento, Fiorentina hosted AC Milan and, at the end of the game, Ibrahimovic presented his young adversary with a signed shirt.

"The message stunned me," Vlahovic told La Repubblica. "It was 'Good luck with everything, I wish you the best’, and he wrote it in Serbian, my language!"

It may have been a simple gesture but it could prove a significant one in terms of Vlahovic's future.

As it stands, he has two years left on his Fiorentina contract and club president is reportedly trying to persuade him to stay by offering to triple his wages. 

If Vlahovic doesn't sign an extension, though, he could well be sold this summer.

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Roma has been mentioned as a possible destination, which makes sense, given Edin Dzeko's likely departure at the end of the season. 

However, Vlahovic isn't just admired by Ibrahimovic at Milan. Stefano Pioli is also a huge fan.

It was the current Rossoneri boss who gave Vlahovic his Serie A debut, in September 2018 against Inter, during his time in charge of Fiorentina.

“Vlahovic has developed very well," Pioli told reporters before his return to the Artemio Franchi last month. 

"I always appreciated his incredible work ethic, because when you train like that, you are destined to improve. He’s a very good centre-forward."

Vlahovic, for his part, has never forgotten the role Pioli played in consoling a squad devastated by the death of former Fiorentina captain Davide Astori in March 2018, describing the coach as "like a father" to the players.

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The 21-year-old would clearly welcome the chance to work with Pioli again, while it has been reported that Milan believe Vlahovic would also benefit enormously from being taken under the wing of Ibrahimovic, who is set to sign on for another season at San Siro.

For now, though, he is concentrating on helping Fiorentina pull clear of the relegation zone. He aims to do that by continuing to score goals. 

And Fantasy Football points, of course.