Radja Nainggolan antics an unwanted sideshow as Roma seek scoring touch
Radja Nainggolan might want to rethink his social media strategy, but his drunken New Year’s Eve antics are far from Roma’s biggest problem they prepare for Atalanta in Italy’s traditional Befana round matches before the new, later winter break.
The Giallorossi are suffering from a goal famine and a poor run of form that has severely dented their title hopes and allowed rivals Lazio to close in on the Champions League places.
Nainggolan being dumped for Saturday evening’s clash at the Stadio Olimpico following his foul-mouthed, and very public festive buffoonery hasn’t helped anyone in Rome bar Laziali. It took six days after the Belgian filmed himself on Instagram staggering around, well-oiled (or “absolutely battered” as he put it) and using the sort of language that most Italian parents wouldn’t want their child hearing from a sporting hero, for the club to decide his on-field fate.
That’s a bizarrely long time, and was three days after they slapped him with a €100,000 fine that he shouldn’t have any problems paying given his whopping €4.2 million-a-year salary. The punishment was the right one, but the slow reaction allowed the affair to drag on in local media.
In truth, the Nainggolan controversy, bad though it is to have one of their big names making a fool of himself on video again, is a side show, and the goal-scoring problem is the key issue that needs resolving if Roma’s early season promise is to be fulfilled at the business end of their Serie A and Champions League campaigns.
Quite apart from anything else, Nainggolan’s appearance or otherwise in Roma’s starting XI hasn’t had much of a bearing on league results since his arrival from Cagliari. The last time Roma lost with the “Ninja” on the sidelines was way back in May 2015, when assured of second place and automatic Champions League qualification they lost 2-1 to Palermo at the Stadio Olimpico. Since then he’s missed 11 Serie A matches, none of which Roma have lost, winning nine and drawing two.
That’s not to say he’s not an important player for Roma, and many of those missed matches were against weak opposition at home — Benevento away and SPAL at home this season, for example — but he’s struggled to show his best form playing in a deeper role to the one in which he flourished under Luciano Spalletti last season, and only has two goals to his name. His goal-shy season is part of a wider malaise.
Since beating Lazio in the derby in November, Roma have scored just eight goals in nine matches in all competitions, and a combination of stodgy attacking and profligacy when the chances do arrive has seen them drop silly points, with last week’s 1-1 home draw with Sassuolo coming after similar results at Genoa and Chievo. In that time they’ve also lost their third match against a title rival — 1-0 to Juventus before Christmas — and managed to get knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Torino, a team going so poorly they went so far as to hire Walter Mazzarri in the hope of turning their season around.
Up front, Edin Dzeko is way off the form that saw him bang in a personal best 39 goals in all competitions last season, with just eight league strikes to his name and only one goal at all since smashing a wonderful brace against Chelsea in that mad match at Stamford Bridge in October. Meanwhile, Stephan El Shaarawy has four and Diego Perotti three, giving Roma’s first-choice front three a combined total of 15, fewer than the totals amassed by Inter captain Mauro Icardi (17) and Lazio’s Ciro Immobile (16).
Roma have had some poor luck in front of goal, hitting the woodwork 14 times — more than every other team in the league — and the post and bar denied them both a probable victory over Inter (lost 3-1 after hitting the post twice and being denied a stonewall penalty with Roma a goal up) and a draw with Napoli (lost 1-0). However, they missed a host of opportunities at Chievo and were denied a draw at Juve (after again hitting the bar) by Patrick Schick fluffing an injury time one-on-one with Wojciech Szczesny.
Atalanta are nobody’s mugs, and despite their relatively lowly league position of 10th they have shown in their Europa League exploits what a good team they are and above all how well coached they are by Gian Piero Gasperini. They’re also something of a bogey team for Roma — this season’s opening day win in Bergamo was their first against Atalanta in six attempts, and only came after a dogged defensive display and a cheeky free-kick shot under the wall by Aleksandar Kolarov.
The way things are going in attack it might have to be the in-form Serb who conjures up the magic on Saturday. At this point anything will do.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC’s AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley