Vlahovic plays Father Christmas for Fiorentina but parting gift may not be far away

Dusan Vlahovic finished off a weekend’s work by playing Father Christmas. He had already delivered two goals for Fiorentina on Saturday, helping them to a 4-0 win over Salernitana at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, but while his teammates went to celebrate under the Curva Fiesole he took himself to the stand behind the opposition bench. A young fan had prepared a sign asking for the striker’s shirt. It was enough to get on Santa’s “nice” list.

Privately, Vlahovic might have been happy for the excuse. His relationship with the Ultras who occupy the Fiesole has not recovered since the club’s owner, Rocco Commisso, went public about the breakdown of his contract negotiations in October. Vlahovic, whose deal is set to expire in the summer of 2023, turned down an extension that would have made him Fiorentina’s best-paid player of all time.

He was worthy of such an offer. Vlahovic is Serie A’s top scorer this season with 15 goals from 17 appearances. He has struck 32 times in this calendar year, placing him just one shy of the league record held by Cristiano Ronaldo. Across Europe’s “big five” domestic championships, only Robert Lewandowski has outgunned Vlahovic in 2021.

All this at 21 years old and playing for a club that finished 13th last season. Vlahovic is not a one-man army, and Fiorentina have made real strides in this campaign under their new manager, Vincenzo Italiano, rising all the way to fifth in the table. Yet the Serbian is still responsible for 48% of the club’s goals so far – and that’s before we start counting assists.

Commisso was reported to have offered as much as €4m a year after tax – five times Vlahovic’s current pay rate. In una dichiarazione, he claimed to have raised his offer repeatedly to accommodate the player’s representatives. The player gave no public comment, but the suspicion was that no amount of money could persuade him to tie himself down at a time when he knew bigger clubs were starting to show an interest.

Newspapers were linking him already with Juventus, provoking a grim sense of deja vu for Fiorentina fans. They had lost Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi to the Bianconeri in the past four years, just as they did Roberto Baggio three decades before. When your most promising young talent so often leaves to join your most hated rival, you can start to develop a complex.

Vlahovic heard whistles from the Fiesole before Fiorentina’s next home game, un 3-0 rout of Cagliari. When the Viola won a penalty at that end of the pitch, he declined to take it – passing duties to the club’s captain, Cristiano Biraghi. Italiano would later insist that this was not a big deal and that penalties were a question of “feeling”. But the surprise was evident in the moment on the faces of Vlahovic’s teammates.

He would score a free-kick at the far end later in the match, but while the rest of the Franchi celebrated a section of the Fiesole refused to join in. They did not jeer, but responded with performative indifference, extending a rehearsed chant without missing a beat.

That has been the tone of things since. While most Fiorentina fans have shown themselves willing to get behind Vlahovic, a small and unyielding core of Ultras has resisted, making it clear that they would prefer him not to celebrate at their end.

Nel frattempo, the player’s form has only got better. Vlahovic followed up the Cagliari game with a hat-trick against Spezia, then two more goals and an assist in a 4-3 win over Milan. Then he went away on international duty and helped Serbia to qualify for the World Cup. Since returning, he has scored seven more goals in five games.

Such extraordinary form will only sharpen the interest of potential suitors. Arsenal and Manchester City were among the teams linked to the player last summer but at this point just about every leading club in Europe is at least monitoring his progress. Insieme a 18 months left on the player’s contract, Fiorentina could face a complicated decision if any of them decides to come forward with a worthy offer in January.

Yet all indications are that the player himself would prefer to stay until the end of the campaign. Any longer than that is unlikely, even after he celebrated scoring against Milan by pointing a finger down at the pitch as if to say: “My place is here.”

Vlahovic has spoken openly about ambition, about wanting to keep progressing and challenging himself. As he put it in an interview with Dazn this September, “a life without risk is not worth living”. Yet he believes Fiorentina is the right place for him to be at this moment, describing it as somewhere he can, “take a step forward, score lots of goals, give lots of assists and win lots of matches. The rest will come as it comes.”

And Fiorentina are flying right now, with four wins – and 15 goals scored – in their last five games. Italiano earned his opportunity at the club by overachieving at Arzignano Valchiampo in Serie D, Trapani in Serie C and then Spezia in Serie B, securing repeat promotions before guiding the latter club to top-flight safety last season.

He is popular with his players and was cited by Vlahovic as a key factor in the decision to stay this season in Florence. “He is always on you, correcting the smallest mistake,” said the striker. “I like that because with someone like that I can only grow.”

Of the two goals Vlahovic scored on Saturday, the first was more eye-catching: an angled chip back across his own body from the edge of the box. It was the second, anche se, that he enjoyed more, arriving at the near post to sweep home a cross from Riccardo Sottil. He had been working with his manager to get better at those exact runs for weeks now. The pair celebrated together in front of the dugout.

This was a satisfying evening all-around for Italiano, who has wanted more goals from midfield as well and had them delivered here by Giacomo Bonaventura and the substitute Youssef Maleh. It was the second strike in as many games for the latter player, 23 years old and signed from Venezia in January but allowed to stay on loan there until the summer.

There is more to like in this squad than just Vlahovic. Maleh’s emergence is an encouraging note, as are the strong recent performances of Bonaventura and the Argentinian winger Nico González. Together they have helped to propel Fiorentina to fifth in the table, two points clear now even of Juventus.

Vlahovic will eventually leave – whether sooner or later – but the club has a window of opportunity now to exploit his talent. It is not Father Christmas’s job, Dopotutto, to hang around forever. What better gift could there be, anche se, for those sceptics in the Curva Fiesole, than a European qualification earned at the expense of those most hated rivals?

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