Radja Nainggolan crashed his car on the day he came to Inter. A tyre burst on his Ferrari Lusso as he was making the drive north from Rome to Milan for pre-season training, causing him to veer into a motorway guardrail. The accident was not his fault and yet, looking back now, it does feel like an omen for everything that was to come.
Internazionale had paid a steep price to acquire Nainggolan, coughing up â¬24m in cash but more significantly sending Davide Santon and NicolÃ² Zaniolo to Roma in part-exchange. To give up the latter, in particular, felt painful. Zaniolo was the star of Interâs under-19 team who had just won a national title, scoring 13 goals in 26 games from midfield.
Nainggolan, though, was the player Luciano Spalletti most wanted: one with whom he had worked so fruitfully at Roma. Where Zaniolo was a bright prospect, the Belgian was a proven commodity: the high-power engine Inter needed as they returned to the Champions League for the first time in seven years.
Five months later the overriding sense is that they ought to have taken a closer look under the bonnet. From the outset Nainggolan has been hampered by injuries. He missed games against Barcelona, Lazio and Juventus. He limped out of matches with Milan and Tottenham before half-time.
Even when he has managed to get through 90 minutes, the midfielder has rarely impressed. It is hard to think of a decisive performance outside of the 2-1 win away to PSV, when Nainggolan scored the equaliser shortly before half-time. On Saturday, he struggled to impose himself away to last-placed Chievo.
In his defence, Inter were still winning when he was withdrawn midway through the second-half. He played no part in the lax defending that allowed Mariusz Stepinski to make an unchallenged flick on a long ball forward in the 91st minute, releasing Sergio Pellissier into the penalty area to make it 1-1.
The result was yet another let down for Inter in a period packed full of them. They have won two of their last nine games across all competitions, dropping out of the Champions League and falling to eight points behind second-placed Napoli in Serie A. The 16-point gap to Juventus is so large it barely feels worthy of a mention.
That is hardly all Nainggolanâs fault. Inter have been too reliant on Mauro Icardi for goals â though Ivan Perisic did end his dry run on Saturday â too vulnerable down the flanks, and too ponderous in midfield.
Spallettiâs performance is coming under scrutiny. He was outmanoeuvred by Chievoâs Domenico Di Carlo, whose switch to a 3-4-1-2 permitted his team to win a greater share of possession after being overwhelmed in the first-half. The Inter manager betrayed a nervousness, too, when he chastised a journalist for reporting JoÃ£o MÃ¡rioâs inclusion in the starting XI before the team sheets came out.
Nainggolan would make unwanted headlines a day later when Inter announced they had suspended him for âdisciplinary reasonsâ. It emerged he had arrived late for training on the morning after the draw.
Reports indicated this was not the first time. Gazzetta dello Sport suggested there had been some concern at Inter about his approach to rehabilitating his various injuries, too, making reference to âphysiotherapy sessions finishing earlier than expectedâ. And then came the inevitable discussions about how the player spends his free time.
Nainggolan had not yet made his debut for Inter this August when he was spotted with TV personality Fabrizio Corona in a Bergamo nightclub after 2am. A video circulated online of a supporter shouting at him to go to bed and Nainggolan responding by raising his middle finger. He showed up at training the next day in the same clothes.
Inter must have been aware when they signed him that he likes to cut loose. This is a player who began the year by posting a video of himself, in his own words, âdrunk as a soakâ, on Instagram, and subsequently getting dropped by Roma for their first game of 2018.
He has never hidden the fact he enjoys a smoke and a drink, arguing these are normal behaviours and do not prevent him from performing to a high standard. Spalletti endorsed the sentiment at his pre-Chievo press conference, saying, âI can only say how heâs spent his week on the pitch. He trained well. The rest is stuff that does not relate to me.â
Arriving late for training most certainly does. The timing of Nainggolanâs suspension is intriguing, arriving just days after the former Juventus chief executive Beppe Marotta took on his new directorâs role at Inter. Is such swift punishment indicative of his influence? Comparisons were soon being drawn with Leonardo Bonucci being dropped at Juventus after he had spoken out of turn to Massimiliano Allegri â though it was the manager who initiated that move.
In any case, it is a significant step. Interâs next game is a critical one, at home to Napoli on Boxing Day. To deprive themselves of Nainggolan feels like a deliberate statement.
It might also raise questions about the playerâs future. Reports are already circulating that the club would be prepared to sell him if the right offer arrived in January. How many suitors would there even be, though, for a 30-year-old midfielder performing at a level far short of his best?
Nainggolan walked away largely unscathed from his car accident in July. It might be harder to recover from a career misstep.Talking points
â¢ Gennaro Gattuso will get to eat his panettone as the manager of Milan. Whether he makes it through the winter break is another matter, after defeat to Fiorentina saw Milan slip out of the top four. They have failed to score in three league games (including a hideous draw with Bologna) and Gonzalo HiguaÃn has not scored since October.
â¢ At the other end of the spectrum is Fabio Quagliarella: enjoying the best run of his career with goals in seven consecutive matches for Sampdoria. The last Italian to manage such a feat in Serie A was Antonio Di Natale, in 2010.
â¢ Juventus are winter champions, setting league records for points (49) and wins (16) through 17 games. Itâs neat they went out to spend Â£100m on Cristiano Ronaldo this summer, solely to distract opponents from defending Mario Mandzukic properly.
â¢ Napoli are on course to break the 90-point threshold again in Serie A, despite trailing Juventus by eight. More significant than their win over Spal was their success in signing Kalidou Koulibaly to a new contract on Monday with no release clause.Topics Serie A Sportblog Internazionale European club football features Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email Share on LinkedIn Share on Pinterest Share on Google+ Share on WhatsApp Share on Messenger Reuse this content