One to watch: Nemanja Radonjic
By S. Willis
After taking some time to find his feet in France's top flight, Marseille's Serbia winger Nemanja Radonjic has hit his straps with some superb goals in recent weeks. But who is the man OM shelled out €12m for in 2018? Read on…
After a troubled 2018-19 campaign under Rudi Garcia, Olympique de Marseille have found new impetus under Portuguese coach André Villas-Boas and sit four points clear in second, trailing leaders and eternal rivals Paris Saint-Germain by a provisional five points.
Riding a wave of confidence, the southern giants have won four Ligue 1 Conforama matches in a row - for the first time in almost two years - just as Nemanja Radonjic has started to show glimpses of the quality that convinced OM sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta to pay €12m for him back in the summer of 2018.
It took the 23-year-old over a year to score his first goal for the club - an incisive solo run, a deft check and a cool finish in the 2-0 win in Toulouse in Week 14 - but, with his second goal coming just a week later, and in stunning fashion, it seems the Serbian young gun is growing in that most precious of commodities: confidence.
Can he keep it up and help Marseille to maintain the pressure on leaders PSG and secure a return to Champions League football? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: the young man who has played for both sides of Belgrade's eternal derby between Partizan and Red Star is no stranger to pressure.
Born in Niš, Serbia in 1996, Radonjic moved from his local side to the youth academy at Serbian giants Partizan Belgrade aged 17. After declaring himself a lifelong fan of Partizan's bitter Eternal Derby rivals Red Star, he moved to the Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy in Romania.
A move to Serie A luminaries AS Roma on a four-year deal followed in 2014, but he never turned out for the side from the Italian capital, spending seasons on loan with Empoli and then Čukarički, where he gave glimpses of his talent with some spectacular goals, including a 30-metre screamer against Jagodina.
In 2017, Radonjic secured a dream loan move - with option to buy - to Red Star and scored five goals in 28 appearances, prompting the Belgrade club to make the deal permanent for €3m - a day before selling him to OM for €12m in a tidy piece of business.
Internationally, Radonjic made his debut for Serbia's U17 side in 2012, scoring five goals in six matches, before representing his country at every youth level and then making his senior-team debut in November 2017.
Style of play:
Adept with both feet, the pacey winger prefers life on the left flank - as his winner against Brest confirmed - but can also play on the right - see his first OM goal, against Toulouse. Either way, the 1.85m wide man likes to get forward and pressure defences, his elegant gait and close control helping him to beat his man and bear down on goal. That being said, he has a fearsome shot and has been known to hit the jackpot from distance
"I like playing in a team that constantly attacks. I do not like playing defensively," he declared in his first interview with club journalists after signing for OM - whose club motto is 'straight to goal' - in the summer of 2018. "I like to attack and I'm very happy to join a team that plays that way."
AVB has opted to manage Radonjic's game time carefully - the Serb has made just three starts in his 11 appearances this season - but already the winger's stats are looking better than last season. Obviously the goals column already has two more than it did last campaign, but the winger has already accumulated five on-target shots from a total of 11 efforts whereas he managed just three from 16 in 17 appearances (seven starts) in the 2018-19 campaign.
This upturn in his league number has coincided with his first goals for Serbia. Radonjic scored in both legs of Euro 2020 qualifying against Luxembourg, the second coming the week before his maiden Ligue 1 Conforama strike, against Toulouse.
What you didn't know:
Radonjic's surname is derived from the Serbian given name 'Radonja', itself stemming from the adjective 'rad', meaning willing, eager or keen - all attributes that the winger embodies. Meanwhile, his first name, Nemanja, means either stubborn/persistent or dragon/demon person in Serbian, depending on whom you talk to! Fearsome stuff.
Radonjic's dramatic goal against Brest gets the gong for a number of reasons. Not only was it his second in as many matches after he broke a dry spell of over a year, but it also clinched a crucial win with seconds to go after his side had shipped a demoralising leveller with just two minutes to play. But, above all, it was a superb strike, curling into the far top corner from a tight angle despite Radonjic's being under heavy pressure from three defenders. Grace under fire.
What he said:
"When I left Partizan for Roma, I think I was lacking in experience. But I did my best; I did not want to give up. I think that, in the end, it was worth it."
- Talking to OM's website after signing from Red Star Belgrade in the summer of 2018
"Things are going much better; I speak much more with the new coach, even though I did know Rudi Garcia when I was at AS Roma. I didn't train with the first team all that much at the time though. With André Villas-Boas, the communication is much better, but training is much harder. Still, we like working hard, and if I'm honest, we didn't train that hard last year."
- Talking to OM's website about life under AVB
What they said:
"After a year and a half of doubts and mockery, Serbian striker Nemanja Radonjic has just scored two consecutive goals and that will, perhaps, shut a few people up. Of course we have to avoid getting carried away, but with confidence that's starting to build, a coach who seems to have found the formula and [Florian] Thauvin's expected return from injury after the break, this may be the year for OM."
- Canal+ pundit Pierre Ménès after Radonjic's wonder goal against Brest
"Nemanja was very disappointed not to have started in Toulouse (2-0), when he had scored on national team duty with Serbia. He came home with a positive state of mind, which shows that spending some time on the bench can make a positive difference. It will give him a boost in confidence. It's great for a coach to have some selection headaches."
- OM boss André Villas-Boas
"Ahahah Nemanja yesss show themmmm #TheSerbianCristiano"
- team-mate Florian Thauvin on Twitter after Radonjic's wonder strike