Nikola Milenkovic had made just three previous appearances in Serie A when he came face to face with Gonzalo Higuain. Literally.
The pair exchanged words during Fiorentina’s meeting with Juventus at the Stadio Artemio Franchi last February and the then 20-year-old Serb refused to take a backward step.
On the contrary, the fearless Milenkovic pushed his forehead into Higuain’s.
Given their hatred of Juve, Fiorentina fans unsurprisingly loved him for exhibiting such aggression towards the Bianconeri No.9; it made Milenkovic an instant cult hero in Florence.
“I’ll tell you the truth: for me, the name of the opponent doesn’t matter,” he told La Nazione afterwards. “It’s never conditioned me.
“Everyone deserves respect and great application if you want to do your job well.
“The Juve centre-forward or not, they’re all the same for me: I have to do everything to stop them.”
Mladen Krstajic was just as taken by Milenkovic’s fearlessness as the Viola faithful. So, when Matija Nastasic was ruled out of last summer’s World Cup through injury, the Serbia coached turned to Milenkovic.
As a precocious talent capable of playing at right-back as well as in his preferred position of centre-half, Milenkovic was viewed as a useful addition to the squad.
However, Krstajic quickly realised the youngster was ready for the first team.
After a commanding showing in a pre-tournament friendly against Chile on June 4, the coach put Milenkovic back in the starting line-up just three days later for another warm-up game, against Bolivia.
“I’ve no fear of putting him on the field again,” he stated. “His age permits him to play two games in a row without too many problems.
“Besides, I know Milenkovic well. He’s centred and he knows how to behave well also in training.
“He reminds me of [Nemanja] Vidic.”
By the end of the group stage of the World Cup, Krstajic wasn’t the only one comparing Milenkovic – who started all three games – to the Manchester United legend.
Tall (6 foot 4 inches/1.93 metres), fast (he used to run 60 metres at national level in Serbia), strong, good on the ball and brave, the similarities were obvious, even if Milenkovic tried to distance himself from such talk.
“It is magnificent to be compared to the likes of Vidic but I have to stay humble with both feet firmly on the ground,” he said.
“Vidic was one hell of a player, while I am in the fledgling stage of my career and, hence, I have to keep working hard in order to climb that mountain.”
He’s progressing well, though, and could even be set to follow in Vidic’s footsteps by moving to Old Trafford, with the dismissal of Jose Mourinho having done nothing to quell United’s interest in Milenkovic.
When the Portuguese travelled to see Serbia defeat Montenegro in October, it was thought that Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was the priority.
However, Mourinho was, in fact, primarily present to run the rule over Milenkovic, who was also watched by United representatives in a Serie A game against Bologna the following month.
They would all have been impressed by what they saw of the €5.1 million (£4.6m/$5.9m) signing from Partizan Belgrade, who is now valued at 10 times that amount.
Milenkovic has been excellent at centre-half for Serbia.
After starting all three of their group games at Russia 2018 – he was their best player by some distance – he missed just one match during a UEFA Nations League campaign that ended with Serbia securing promotion to League B.
He has been utilised at right-back by Fiorentina in all but two games this season but performed no less impressively.
Indeed, he kicked off the 2018-19 campaign by netting a stunning long-range strike in the Viola’s Serie A opener, against Chievo.
Milenkovic struck again in the 3-0 win over SPAL on matchday five but it would be wrong to portray him as a dynamic, offensively-minded figure on the right flank.
In truth, he offers little going forward, registering no assists in 18 outings this term, creating just two chances and making just three successful crosses.
His distribution has also been poor: only three defenders have misplaced more passes in 2018-19. In short, Milenkovic is no Joao Cancelo. What he is, though, is a highly accomplished defender.
He is a force of nature in the air, as underlined by the fact that he has won 55 aerials this term. To put that in context, Napoli colossus Kalidou Koulibaly has claimed 43.
Milenkovic is just as difficult to get the better of on the deck. Not only is he quick, he also reads the play well and usually times his challenges to perfection.
He has won 23 tackles, made 24 interceptions and pulled off 11 blocks in 2018-19, just one less than the Koulibaly, the league’s best defender, on all three counts.
Discipline remains a concern, which is perhaps unsurprising for such a determined character. He has already been dismissed twice in 34 Serie A appearances.
However, this is a young man who is aware of his flaws and, consequently, is doing everything possible to address them.
“I needed the reds; I learned from them,” he explained. “That’s my character: I always like to learn, to understand.
“Even when I was on the bench [at Fiorentina], I tried to absorb everything. I never missed a thing from the games I watched without playing.
“Only in this way can one improve. That has always been my mentality since I was a child.
“I watch the big games because I like football but above all else because I want to improve. One understands so many things by watching the best players.”
Which is why he watched Vidic, his “hero”, so closely when he was younger: “I would like to have his ability to put his opponent in difficulty, any opponent in the world.”
Gonzalo Higuain would doubtless argue he already has it.