After watching his Internazionale team throw away a two-goal lead against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League on Tuesday, Antonio Conte lamented a shortage of top-level experience in his playing squad. “Who am I supposed to call on?” he demanded. “Nicolò Barella, who came here from Cagliari? [Stefano] Sensi, who we signed from Sassuolo?”
These were unworthy remarks from a manager whose club splurged more than €150m on transfer fees in the summer window, delivering him several of the players he wanted most. Barella had been one of Conte’s top priorities. Sensi was Inter’s standout performer through the first two months of this season.
Even if we accept the assessment that inexperience cost the Nerazzurri, Conte might still only have himself to blame. He raised no objections when the club packed Radja Nainggolan off to Cagliari on loan in August.
Signed from Roma for the best part of €40m one year before, the Belgian chipped in seven goals and three assists during his single season at Inter and yet his reputation for enjoying life away from the training pitch appears to have counted against him. “Conte told me he had always rated me highly,” the player told Corriere dello Sport, “but that this decision was taken for non-footballing reasons.”
Inter’s loss has been Cagliari’s gain. Nainggolan had offers from China and several other clubs in Italy, but chose to return to the team with whom he made his Serie A debut. Together, they are threatening to gatecrash the Champions League.
On Sunday, Cagliari moved up to joint-third with a 5-2 demolition of Fiorentina. It was their seventh win in 12 games – matching their best start to a top-flight campaign. The last time they came out of the blocks this quickly, in 1969-70, they went on to win the Scudetto.
That might be out of reach this time around, given the relentless pace set by Juventus and Conte’s Inter. A European berth, however, hardly feels unattainable for a side capable of producing football as devastating as Cagliari did at the weekend. Each of their five goals was scored by a different player, and each showed a different way in which they could hurt an opponent.
Cagliari’s opener demonstrated how they could dissect a defence with their passing: the ball switched from Luca Cigarini to João Pedro, Nainggolan, Marko Rog and then the back of the net in a sum total of five touches. Their second goal arrived from a corner: Cigarini finding Fabio Pisacane at the back post.
Then came improvisation: Giovanni Simeone inventing a backheel finish after Nainggolan recovered the rebound from his own shot and volleyed back across the six-yard box. Next was a classic counterattack, the Belgian setting things in motion again when he won possession in his own half and marauded upfield before sliding the ball in for João Pedro to finish.
Nainggolan himself got the fifth: a trademark 25-yard thunderbolt to remind us that, when necessary, he can resolve things all on his own. The score by this stage was 5-0. A pair of late consolation goals from Fiorentina’s teenage substitute Dusan Vlahovic made the final result look closer than this match truly was.
As brilliant as Nainggolan was on Sunday, with a goal and a hat-trick of assists, his presence alone cannot explain such transformation. The reality is that Cagliari reinvested the proceeds of Barella’s transfer – which could rise to €49m if all bonuses are met – to tremendous effect.
Rog was a club-record signing from Napoli at €15m this summer, surpassed days later by the arrival of Nahitan Nández for €18m from Boca Juniors. Aged 24 and 23 respectively, with more than 40 international caps between them for Croatia and Uruguay, their arrivals, together with that of Nainggolan, transformed a midfield in which Barella had often appeared to be waging a one-man war for survival.
Up front, Simeone offered a fresh pace and directness. In a roundabout way, the cruciate ligament injury sustained by Leonardo Pavoletti might even have accelerated the team’s evolution.
Eleven of the striker’s team-leading 16 goals last season came from headers, and as long as he was in the team the temptation would always be to concentrate on high balls into the box. Without him, Cagliari are much more inclined to keep the ball on the floor – making priorities instead of directness and quick transitions.
Three months into this season, their form can no longer be dismissed. Cagliari have won away against Napoli and Atalanta, as well as drawing at Roma. Only the penalty-winning brilliance of Sensi allowed Inter to take all three points on their visit to the Sardegna Arena, an occasion marred by racist abuse of Romelu Lukaku.
Not even Nainggolan expected his team to do this well. Cagliari have amassed 24 points from their first 12 games and he confessed on Sunday that, when he signed, he would not have guessed they could hit such a figure before March. Although he believes he could have been an asset to Inter, his motivation in coming back to Cagliari was never to prove a point on the pitch.
A greater priority was to be in a place where his wife, Claudia, could get the treatment and support she needs after being diagnosed with breast cancer. “Sometimes you need to think about being a man first of all,” Nainggolan said in an interview with DAZN last month, “rather than just thinking about your career.”
Those two things, though, do not have to be mutually exclusive. Conte was wrong to say that Inter lack an experienced midfielder capable of taking games in hand. Their mistake was sending him out on loan to Cagliari.
• “Difficult match, important victory #finoallafine” – Cristiano Ronaldo’s tweet this morning is being read by the Italian press as an attempt to calm the waters after he was subbed off, and apparently walked out of the stadium during Juventus’s game against Milan. A storm in a teacup or the beginnings of a seriously thorny dilemma for the club and for manager Maurizio Sarri? Ronaldo’s replacement, Paulo Dybala, scored the winner, just as Douglas Costa had after replacing the Portuguese against Lokomotiv Moscow. Mostly, I’m just musing on the irony of that “until the end” hashtag.
• A midweek mutiny at Napoli – with players refusing to return to the punitive training camp demanded by owner Aurelio De Laurentiis – was followed up by another disappointing draw at home to Genoa. The team is now five games without a win and the whistles of the Stadio San Paolo suggested that fans were not on the players’ side in this dispute. After the home of the midfielder Allan was broken into on Thursday, his wife raised the grim possibility that the incident could be linked to tension around the team. Carlo Ancelotti is under huge pressure to restore calm, while newspapers are speculating that Dries Mertens, a perceived ringleader of the revolt, could be sold as soon as January – an extraordinary turnaround for a player who has been adored by fans and surpassed Diego Maradona in the club’s scoring charts just last month.