All Hail King Radja! Nainggolan’s Retake of Cagliari

Feature Photo: Getty Images

For almost a decade, Serie A has been a one-horse race with Juventus winning eight titles in a row and making a habit of using their financial power and glamorous statute to snatch up all the league’s young talent, thus asserting their dominance. Lately, some new faces have been causing a bit of a storm around the hierarchy. Besides the “usual suspects” who got a taste of the top four and European football (Napoli, Roma, Lazio, Inter), some other sides have been showing glimpses of greatness for the past few years.

First, Atalanta – the Bergamo side led by Gian Piero Gasperini – which, after finishing 7th in the league in the 2017-18 season, barely missed out on European football by losing a Europa League qualification tie to FC Copenhagen. Later, they managed to finish 3rd in the 2018-19 Serie A season, which granted them the opportunity to play in the most prestigious continental tournament, the Champions League.

Caglia-Ring The Alarm!

This year, however, the team stirring up a storm is Cagliari, currently sitting 4th in the table along with Lazio. The Rossoblu, managed by Rolando Maran, have been exceeding everyone’s expectations managing 7 wins, 3 draws and only 2 losses so far, and scoring 23 goals in their opening 12 matches. The Sardinian side struggled with avoiding relegation for the past few seasons, but now look like a completely different beast under the helm of a manager whose best stint (with Catania in 2012-13) was ended by a defeat to Cagliari themselves (1-2 on November 20, 2013). What makes this current team so good? Could it be the transfers? Could it be the manager? Or is it just a lucky streak?

It’s too early in the season to tell where they will finish in the table, but judging by their last performance – a brilliant 5-2 win against Fiorentina – it seems like Cagliari’s new stadium, which is set to be inaugurated next year, might be hosting some European football nights.

This has been Cagliari’s best start ever in Serie A. The only time they managed 7 wins from their first 12 matches was in the 1969-70 season, the year marking their only Scudetto title. One could surely link this year’s inspirational performances to one player: The chain-smoking, Mohawk-wearing, human canvas that is Radja Nainggolan.

Radja Nainggolan came back to Cagliari, where he had already played between 2010 and 2014, after a four-year stint with Roma and an all-but-forgettable season at Inter

All Hail King Radja!

Considered by many as a maverick or an outcast, nobody can question his talent as a football player. Nainggolan’s pit bull-like approach when it comes to bossing around the midfield is rarely seen these days. He is a warrior, a leader, a true force that always pushes his team the extra mile, and although controversial, he is one of the best box-to-box midfielders to having graced the pitches of Serie A in the past decade.

After missing the 2018 World Cup, mostly because of his outspoken personality and for not wanting to give up on his “unhealthy” habits, Radja decided to quit the Belgium national team. Even though the fans backed him up, pitching banners in his support, he said his decision was permanent: “I’m not going back to the national team again. I said that if I don’t go to the World Cup, I’ll quit, and I’m a man of my word,” Nainggolan said. Belgium had a great World Cup finishing third in the competition, their best ranking ever, but could things have gone different with him in the squad? Well, we will probably never know.

Nainggolan was sent out on loan from Inter, even though the reasons for this move are not clear. After signing a player for 40 million euro no more than a year ago, it would seem senseless to let him out on loan that easily. It is rumored that Antonio Conte wanted him to stay as he valued him as a player, but the Nerazzurri’s management wanted him out. Other sources claim that Conte didn’t want any controversial players in his team, being known as a manager that values discipline and a very strict work ethic. We are leaning towards the latter, considering that Mauro Icardi had the same fate: An undeniably excellent footballer who saw himself excluded from the team due to his toxic personality and exaggerated demands.

Not earlier than a week ago, after losing 3-2 to Borussia Dortmund in a Champions League group stage game, Conte remarked: “Who am I supposed to call on?,” he demanded, “Nicoló Barella, who came here from Cagliari? Stefano Sensi, who we signed from Sassuolo?”. He wanted to emphasize the lack of experience his squad has in “big matches,” and the need for a decisive player. Well…maybe he had the right man for the job in his squad all along but chose to let him go. Nainggolan was out casted and saw himself in the position to go and show his skills somewhere else.

Which is exactly what he did in Cagliari, where he scored two goals and provided four assists so far, becoming the engine behind the current Rossoblu squad, and never did he prove that more than in their last match, where he literally demolished Fiorentina. With a hat-trick of assists and one trademark thunderbolt shot that rattled the opposition’s net, he led his team to a shimmering win against a Viola side which started the season with a new ownership and high hopes after the star signing of Frank Ribery and Kevin Prince Boateng and having kept hold of their crown jewel Federico Chiesa.

Maybe Fiorentina shouldn’t have let go so easily of Giovanni Cholito Simeone, who managed a cheeky back-heel goal right against them and is now proving to be one of Cagliari’s most inspired signings from last summer alongside Marko Rog, Nahitan Nandez, and of course Nainggolan himself. Cagliari’s leading board definitely put the money cashed in on Nicoló Barella’s transfer to Inter – 49 million euro, if all bonus conditions are met – to good use.

With Juventus looking rather shaky under the guidance of Maurizio Sarri, Napoli plagued by internal scandals and Roma having had a pretty poor start in the league, there’s no reason why one couldn’t see Cagliari grabbing a European spot for the next season.