It is widely believed that one of the reasons Serbia sacked former coach Slavoljub Muslin was because he refused to give game time to a young Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

If true, it will surely go down as one of the most bizarre reasons for a coach losing his job. That too, after topping a group that featured Wales and Republic of Ireland in the qualifiers, and booking a World Cup spot.

Remember, Serbia are not even a side that have made it a habit of reaching major tournaments. Muslin’s inexplicable exit came seven months before the World Cup began, and he justified leaving out the statuesque 23-year-old. “We qualified for the World Cup without him [Milinkovic-Savic], didn’t we? Also, Dusan Tadic, who played in his position, had four goals and eight assists. So, it made sense to play Tadic and Adem Ljajic in midfield.”

New coach Mladen Krstajic seems to have little trouble accommodating Serbia’s brightest young prospect, who has been destined for big things at an early age too.

Not a side that boasts of dominating the youth circuit, Serbians won the 2013 U-19 Championship and the 2015 U-20 World Cup thanks to Milinkovic-Savic playing a stellar role in both the campaigns. He also finished as the third best player in 2015 edition before moving to Lazio.

On Sunday, he took to World Cup football like a duck to water. After an early spell of Costa Rica pressure, Serbia gradually took control at Saransk. Milinkovic-Savic played a major role, looking comfortable in possession, brushing aside his opponents and pinging the ball forward and to the flanks with purpose.

Unhurried, quick-thinking, versatile and strong, he ensured that the momentum shifted towards the team in white. Oddly, Muslin had also cited the Spanish-born’s lack of dynamism as a reason for him having to warm the bench for a prolonged period.

The 2017-’18 Serie A season showed that Milinkovic-Savic belonged at the top level. Playing a bulk of Lazio’s games, he ended up scoring 15 goals in the season playing from the heart of midfield. It therefore comes as little surprise that Juventus and Manchester United expressed a desire to sign him even before a World Cup began.

And Mlinkovic-Savic might have just as easily provided the goal of the tournament. There was a moment when he sneaked into the box and unleashed an overhead kick from close range. However, the flag was already raised by the linesman and the shot was caught by goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

In the final quarter, striker Alexander Mitrovic was put through on goal with a perfectly weighted pass that any No 9 would dream of. Unfortunately, the on-loan Fulham striker was a frustrating figure upfront despite having the chances to put the match beyond the reach of Costa Rica.

If Milinkovic-Savic goes on to play for United, manager Jose Mourinho will be pleased to see the midfielder’s work rate, an aspect that is pivotal while playing in the Portuguese’s system.

When Serbia lost the ball, he was quick to lend support to Luka Milivojevic and retrieve possession. There were flicks and turns and clever bursts of pace and in no time, surge to the other end to combine with Dusan Tadic. Serbia’s backline and midfield might have had plenty of muscle to bully opponents. However, they offered little cutting edge and creativity.

There is little doubt over 6’4”Milinkovic-Savic’s capabilities of coming out on top while jostling for the ball with his opposite number. The sight of a towering lad displaying twinkle toes isn’t a trend that the game has offered in years gone by. It is the diminutives ones such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta or Luca Modric who have thrived in a box-to-box creative role.

The only hurdle Milinkovic-Savic will have to cross if he wears the Manchester red in the summer is that he will be fighting for a spot with the mercurial Paul Pogba. The French midfielder would have taken note.

In the past, lofty expectations from Serbia in a major tournament have backfired alarmingly. They can be confident of a place in the last-16 after a near-perfect start on their first day in Russia. Alexander Kolarov may have garnered all the attention after his free-kick thunderbolt, but Milinkovic-Savic, who models himself on Yaya Toure, made a lasting impact. Ruggedness and artistry do go hand in hand.