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FEATURE: Radja Nainggolan is and shall remain the engine that makes Roma run

Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Weeks after his social media slip up on New Year’s, midfield star Radja Nainggolan looks to put his mistakes and rumors of an exit behind him, and continue being the engine that makes Roma run.

This goes without saying. Roma need star midfielder Radja Nainggolan to be focused and in tip top form if they are to make a deep run in the current UEFA Champions League campaign, reclaim their top four position in the table and maintain it for a berth in next year’s competition. But, first things first, there are a few issues that need addressing if the Giallorossi are to move forward and get their season back on course.

Nainggolan’s lifestyle outside football as a smoker and party-goer has been well documented for several years now, but never once has it prevented him from being one of Europe’s elite and most complete midfielders. In fact, previous managers for club and country had, for the most part, been accepting of his ways, so long as they didn’t effect his performance and weren’t detriment to the team.

Former Belgium boss Marc Wilmots, who coached the 29-year old during the 2016 European Championships two summers ago, had this to say about the midfield dynamo’s smoking habits:

 “I’m not going to stop him if that’s what he needs. It’s his body. I’m fine with it so long as he performs out there on the pitch.”

Nainggolan’s talent is without question there for us all to see, and the stunning performances over the years for Roma speak for themselves, but the harsh reality most expect him to face will be a career cut short due to these habits.

“It’s his problem if this [smoking] means he will have to retire at 30 rather than at 35,” admitted Wilmots.

The concern has always been that at some point, the Roman outfit may be forced to deal with Nainggolan’s behavior – even if it meant taking an uncomfortable and unpopular position with the fans. Sure enough, that time arrived on New Year’s when the star’s social media antics put him in hot water.

Uploading a series of videos on Instagram with him drinking, smoking and voicing obscenities, Nainggolan’s postings resulted in harsh criticism from all over. Later, he issued a public apology on his account, however, though remorseful in his words, Roma handed him a punishment including a fine in excess of €100,000 and seat in the stands for the clubs’s league match with Atalanta which ended in a 2-1 defeat.

“If you make a mistake, there are consequences,” explained manager Eusebio Di Francesco prior to the loss. “This is in line with the club’s code of conduct, it’s a decision I support and the player has accepted.”

Nainggolan’s certainly had time over this break for soul-searching, if he needed any, but the attention did not shift away from the former Cagliari star who found himself in transfer rumours linking his name to an exit from the Italian capital.

Earlier this week, Gazzetta dello Sport reported that talks had taken place between Nainggolan and Fabio Cannavaro’s Guangzhou Evergrande over a possible €50 million move to China this month that would see him earn €12 million a year with the Chinese Super League champions.

There were also further rumblings from England that Chelsea would look to make a January bid for the Red Devil who has long been one of Antonio Conte’s most desirable targets, but a move this month is not only improbable, but risky for Roma sporting director Monchi to go through when you consider supporters’ criticism of his transfer dealings last summer.

In 15 Serie A appearances, the Belgium international’s tallies of two goals and three assists look a bit light in terms of production. Some would argue that Nainggolan hasn’t been as sharp or effective this year for the Giallorossi, but judging him purely on numbers, as most would tell you in the modern game, isn’t an accurate portrayal of how vital Nainggolan is to the Roman cause.

ROME, ITALY – NOVEMBER 18: Alberto De Rossi, Radja Nainggolan and their teammates of AS Roma celebrate the victory after the Serie A match between AS Roma and SS Lazio at Stadio Olimpico on November 18, 2017 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Nainggolan’s intense offensive and defensive work-rate cannot be more valuable to Roma’s current midfield which currently lacks both consistency and quality. Kevin Strootman’s injury record looks to be taking a toll on his ability to impact matches, and is far from re-establishing his 2013-14 form. Daniele De Rossi’s static and his best days are likely numbered as the destroyer at the base of the midfield.  The summer addition of Maxime Gonalons doesn’t appear to be contributing much of anything in the middle of the park since moving from Lyon, and though Lorenzo Pellegrini’s promising, he isn’t quite mature enough to shoulder major responsibilities at 21.

Down the middle, the club lacks ideas and creativity, and in many ways, it has negatively impacted reigning capocannoniere winner Edin Džeko who has only 13 goals in all competitions compared to last season when he buried 39 in a revival of his career.

Of course, there are several reasons for Roma’s drop off over the last month and a half; the players, manager and directors all need to be held accountable. Yet, when Nainggolan’s dynamism, unrelenting work-rate and drive going forward are fully intact, Roma look like a completley different side. But besides all that, when the tenacious Belgian is his normal box-to-box self and acting as the energetic force in the midfield, Roma feed off it. In most cases, as Radja goes, so do Roma.

Currently, Roma sit fifth in the table on 39 points with a game in hand. Despite having lost three of four in all competitions (including bowing out of the Coppa Italia 1-2 versus Torino) and looking underwhelming on the pitch as a unit, Di Francesco’s side is still in good position at this stage of the season. But certainly, there is cause for concern if you are a Roma supporter and they cannot continue maintaining the status quo if they are to meet their seasonal objectives. That is where Radja Nainggolan steps in.

If the “mohawked ninja” is not focused and in tip top form, Roma will find advancing past Shakhtar Donetsk in the Round of 16, and finishing top four, extremely difficult.

Nainggolan, who extended his contract until 2021 last summer, has shown nothing but love and dedication to Roma amidst plenty of major interest abroad over the years. In spite of his actions, the club must remain committed to him, just as he has to them.

The engine that makes Roma run, Radja Nainggolan must ensure he is revved, focused and ready to drive ‘i Lupi’ forward.

Senior Editor and Social Media Manager of Italian Football Daily. Milanista from New Jersey, USA. Follow me on Twitter at @Matt_Santangelo.

@ItalianFD

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