Nainggolan, Roma look to back up their chatter with derby win over Lazio
Earlier this month, Roma's man-of-the-moment Radja Nainggolan made headlines around the world when he let rip at Juventus, telling fans just how much he hates them through a wisp of cigarette smoke, unaware that he was being filmed by sneaky supporters. What got less coverage was his fate-tempting prediction that he and his teammates would cruise past Lazio in the Coppa Italia semifinals, the first leg of which is Wednesday night.
"We'll win both Coppa Italia derbies, I tell you right now. I've never lost to them," said the Ninja, setting himself square up as a target ahead of the first of three Rome derbies in two months. Normally, that sort of prediction would have Roma fans pulling their hair out, but after his recent exploits, it would be no surprise to find out that he's also a match predictor extraordinaire. The way he's going at the minute, it seems that he can pretty much do everything else, and after all, in Radja's ancestral homeland of Indonesia his name means "King".
Nainggolan's two incredible goals in the weekend's big game at Internazionale were the highlight of a 2017 that has already brought six Serie A goals (eight in all competitions), the same as reborn teammate Edin Dzeko and only bettered by Gonzalo Higuain, who's bagged an outrageous nine in as many games since the turn of the year.
Since Luciano Spalletti returned to Rome last January, Nainggolan has scored 18 goals. His league haul of 15 in that time is better than any midfielder in Serie A, ahead of Napoli string-puller Marek Hamsik and Fiorentina's young buck Federico Bernardeschi, and almost double his previous lifetime total. Before the Tuscan coach's arrival, the Belgian had scored 18 club goals in his entire club career.
After a shaky start, Nainggolan has settled into the more advanced role that Spalletti has designed for him in behind Edin Dzeko, and it has paid dividends, turning him into a heavily inked, chain-smoking, goal-scoring upgrade on Simone Perrotta, who performed a similar, slightly less spectacular job for Spalletti alongside false nine Francesco Totti a decade ago. He's also calmed down his slightly rushed passing, evident as two of his four assists have come in the last fortnight.
His development into an attacking force hasn't come at the cost of his defensive effectiveness either. Nainggolan recovered possession a whopping 11 times against Inter, an almost unheard of number for someone nominally playing as a No. 10. That bite will be key against Lazio, who have been scraping results in recent weeks but are nonetheless a tough nut to crack. A repeat of his man-of-the-match performance in the first league derby back in December -- and another goal -- wouldn't go amiss.
He and his Roma teammates won't have to worry about the reception facing them. As on Tuesday morning just 23,000 tickets had been sold for the match, and the season's second Rome derby -- a cup semifinal, no less -- once one of the world's most thrilling spectacles thanks to the incredible atmosphere generated by the fans, will be played out in front of a barely half-full Stadio Olimpico. All thanks to the row over the division of the stadium's Curvas Sud and Nord still not having been resolved.
Neither club's hardcore ultras (alongside just as many regular curva-going supporters) have been very impressed with the police's idea to simply lower the height of the barriers by half, rather than remove them altogether as per the wishes of Minister of Sport Luca Lotti. This will reduce the chances of any violent incidents taking place in or near the ground, but will also mean the match is played out in front of a tiny crowd and a tepid atmosphere.
It's also unclear what the point of the move even is. In theory, it's supposed to be a test ahead of potentially removing them at an as yet unspecified date. But the authorities know that fans will stay away as long as the barriers, which when installed removed seats from season ticket holders, remain in place, so why even bother lowering them?
In truth, the smaller crowd didn't stop the last derby from being a heated affair, with Kevin Strootman escaping a two-match ban for "diving" after squirting Danilo Cataldi in the face with water during the wild celebrations after the Dutchman's opener, and tensions will be high on the pitch even if the atmosphere won't be much off of it. The Coppa Italia represents Roma's most realistic chance at a first trophy in nine years, even if Radja the honourary Roman is thinking bigger.
"We're still in the running in three competitions, we can still win three trophies," he said to UEFA's official website on Tuesday. "We're a good team and we're certain of our quality, if we play our football I think we can beat anyone."
That campaign starts on Wednesday against Lazio. Who'd bet against the King
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC's AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley