Roko Simic: Salzburg's €4m teenage striker linked with Real Madrid and Arsenal

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The term 'elite striker factory' is thrown around when fans speak about Red Bull Salzburg, but there is no doubt that the Austrian champions do something right when it comes to developing No.9s.

Erling Haaland is, of course, the poster boy, but he is not the only centre forward who has thrived when wearing the red and white of Salzburg.

Patson Daka left for Leicester City in the summer of 2021 with a better than one-in-two record, and Karim Adeyemi looks set to be the next to fly the nest after scoring 15 goals in 22 games to start the season, drawing interest from the great and good of the European elite.

Should, as is expected, teenage Germany international Adeyemi leave the Red Bull Arena in either January or the summer of 2022, then all eyes will be on the next player to take up the Salzburg striker mantle.

Benjamin Sesko, 18, has already impressed with seven goals in his first three months of senior action, and he could yet be joined up front by another 2003-born striker around whom there is plenty of excitement.

Roko Simic only moved to Salzburg in July, but has already made enough of an impact to have been offered a new, improved four-year contract that he signed in October.

The son of Dario Simic - the ex-Inter, AC Milan and Monaco defender who was the first Croatian player to earn 100 international caps - Roko has been earning admiring glances from around the continent since his arrival in Austria, despite having only made three first-team appearances to date.

Real Madrid, Arsenal, Tottenham, Milan and West Ham are among those to have been cited as potential future destinations, so what makes Simic such a hot commodity?

As is likely to be the way for any physically imposing striker with an eye for goal who comes through Salzburg, Simic has already been dubbed 'Mini Haaland', though if anything his attributes are more similar to Fiorentina's in-demand Dusan Vlahovic.

Standing at 6'3" (190cm) and with decent pace and first touch, it is Simic's unerring accuracy with both feet when in front of goal that truly stands him out from his peers.

Born in Milan while his father was representing the Rossoneri, Simic's first taste of organised academy football came upon his family's return to Croatia when he enrolled at Dinamo Zagreb.

He was released, however, at the age of 10, with Dinamo believing he did not have what it took to become a first-team player of the future.

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From there Simic joined Kustosija, who are famous for training the offspring of a host of top Croatian footballers due to their location in the centre of Zagreb, before Lokomotiva Zagreb picked him up in 2015.

Little was known of him, however, until the start of the 2020-21 campaign when he debuted as a 16-year-old in a 6-0 loss to Dinamo.

Though that was a chastening first taste of the professional game, Simic certainly did not allow himself to be daunted by the step up to the professional ranks, and by the time the season finished he was Lokomotiva's first-choice striker, scoring four goals in 26 games in the process.

He became just the second 16-year-old to net for the club after Juventus midfielder Marko Pjaca, and the youngest to score for Lokomotiva in the top flight when he netted a brace against Varazdin in April.

Those performances persuaded Salzburg to part with €4 million (£3.5m/$4.5m) to bring him to Austria as they beat off interest from Dinamo to sign him to an initial three-year deal, and he has not disappointed.

"Roko has great potential, an extraordinary mentality and has already shown what he can do in the Croatian league," said Salzburg sports director Christoph Freund following Simic's signing, while revealing he would begin life playing for FC Liefering, Salzburg's reserve side who play in the second tier of Austrian football.

Simic scored with his first touch in his new club's colours, but largely endured a slow start in front of goal before exploding in mid-September, scoring seven goals in a run of five games (including a brace against Lille in the UEFA Youth League) to catapult himself into the first-team reckoning.

It was at a similar time he netted a hat-trick for Croatia Under-21s against Azerbaijan, with his record of six goals in his first five games at that level marking him out as the heir apparent to Mario Mandzukic in the national side.

"Roko is a real striker, he has Mandzukic's strength in him, but I am a perfectionist and I know what else he has to improve," his father, Dario, told Sportske Novosti in October.

"What to work on? I would like him to improve his mental game and his starting speed by 10 per cent, though he is otherwise very fast."

Salzburg would certainly like to see those improvements too having handed Simic his first-team debut as a late substitute in October's Champions League victory over Wolfsburg.

In total, he has 15 goals in 22 games for club and country so far this term, and those who have watched him closely expect him to make his mark in a similar fashion to Haaland, Daka and Adeyemi over the next 12 months.

"Roko is certainly one of the greatest talents in Croatian football," ex-Croatia striker Nikica Jelavic said in May 2021. "Everyone knows who he is because of his famous father, but that's a burden that will shortly be off his back because he's good enough to write his own story.

"I am convinced that Roko will make a great career and that he will be a world-class striker. I really haven't seen a more talented player than Roko for a long time."

Simic, then, could hardly be in a better place to reach that "world-class" potential. The Salzburg striker factory is showing few signs of going out of business anytime soon.

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