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Interview: Radja reflects on the season, his goals, Totti's farewell and more

For Radja Nainggolan, the 2016-17 campaign was one to look back on with a great deal of personal satisfaction.

For the first time in his career, the 29-year-old midfielder hit double figures for goals scored during the campaign (notching 11 in Serie A, and 14 overall) as he also provided seven assists, becoming the driving force of the team the longer the season wore on.

Such impressive statistics in front of goal, coupled with the all-action performances he has long been known for, made it little surprise when it was revealed he had won the fan vote for the club's Player of the Season.

“It’s a nice thing for me, and a nice sign from them that I’ve made a good season,” Nainggolan told asroma.com, when informed of his success. “It is great to feel loved at a club, that is one of the most important things for a player and helps me to be able to keep giving 100%.”

Nainggolan was among a number of players to enjoy hugely productive campaigns in 2016-17, as Roma eventually finished second in Serie A. While the Belgian admits that disappointments in the Coppa Italia and Europa League will hurt for a little while yet, he believes automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League group stage is evidence enough of a positive campaign.

“Our only objective left was to finish second in the table,” he notes. “By arriving second, I think we have made a good season, because finishing second behind Juventus – a team that made the final of the Champions League – and being only four points adrift [of them]… it’s not something people are really talking about.

“We had some stupid draws – Empoli and Cagliari, that’s four points – so we have some regrets, but in the end the season was quite good. Arriving at 87 points is also a record in the club’s history, so that’s something.”

Nainggolan admits that there are some lessons to be learned from the campaign – those league draws, those cup exits - but feels little is gained by being too introspective.

“Everyone can be proud of the season we made,” he adds. “We had a lot of games to deal with. Yes, there were some disappointing moments, like the Europa League against Lyon – we even scored a goal at home that was ruled out for offside at 3-1, that would have changed things. But if you keep on dwelling on the small things you can be talking for years, you know?

“The most important thing is that now we have arrived second and qualify automatically for the Champions League. Doing that means the season was solid.”

Journalists and pundits have been quick to grade Nainggolan’s personal efforts as far beyond ‘solid’, of course, motivated in part by a number of eye-catching goals against the likes of Inter Milan, Lazio and Sampdoria. Having turned 29 during the campaign, many seem to believe that Nainggolan is getting better and better – although the man himself insists that judging solely on the goals tally would be a mistake.

“Was this my best season? If you see the statistics, everyone would say yes, because there are a lot of goals,” he acknowledges. “I played in a different role this season, so I scored a lot of goals and, when you play football, and you see the players that are scoring, they become the idols … but there are a lot of players in the team that work hard, that do a lot to make the other player score.

“So it’s a little bit of an ‘image’ to focus on the goals. But of course I am happy about it: I scored a lot of goals and for me personally, it’s not something that has really happened to me before - so of course I can be satisfied with the campaign I’ve had.”

“The most important thing is that now we have arrived second and qualify automatically for the Champions League. Doing that means the season was solid.” Radja Nainggolan

Beyond the goals he scored, Nainggolan’s influence on the team as a whole grew as the campaign progressed, as did his importance to coach Luciano Spalletti’s system: with the midfielder starting the season in a deeper role but ending it consistently higher up the pitch, driving the team’s pressing and linking much of the attacking play.

At times coach Luciano Spalletti would ask the No. 4 to play three different roles in a three-match span – as part of a three-man midfield one week, then as a No. 10 the next, or even as a support striker cutting in from the left, something that would test the tactical intelligence of any player.

Not that Nainggolan seemed to struggle - indeed, sometimes such demands seemed to inspire him to even better performances.

“That’s the coach,” Nainggolan says, shrugging. “At the beginning of the season we played with a three in the middle, so perhaps I played a little bit more defensively, and then at the end I was playing always offensively, high up the pitch.

“But we are clear about what we want to do. So to make the transition is not that difficult, because I know exactly what I need to do in whichever role I have to play.”

As Nainggolan’s goals tally began to rise, so too did the expectation on his shoulders. Not only the Swiss army knife of the team, changing role as the situation demanded, he was one of the main goalscoring threats too.

Was being so integral to the team’s tactics a motivation or a pressure?

“Motivation? Yes, a bit,” Nainggolan reflects. “Pressure … I never feel pressure, I’ve never had pressure. For me every game is the same, whether it’s the World Cup final – if I one day play in it – or any other game. You can play bad in ‘easy’ games, you can play good in high-profile games. So everything is the same. It depends on the moment, and how you feel in that moment.”

He adds: “I think I’m important in this role because it requires high pressure, constant pressure, and that’s one of the reasons I was put so high. It’s an important role for this kind of system.”

Reflecting on the campaign as a whole, Nainggolan was quick to highlight the important role teammate Edin Dzeko - who came a narrow second in the voting for Player of the Season - played in the overall performance of the team.

Echoing his comments about his own goalscoring tally, Nainggolan insists Dzeko’s record-breaking haul (39 goals in all competitions) does not reflect the complete contribution he made.

“It’s not just because of the goals, also his importance to the team,” Nainggolan says. “Edin can keep the ball, he’s technically good, he can give assists… in moments of difficulty he is there. He is like a leader as well. It’s really important for us to have him in the team.”

One of the moments from the campaign that will live longest in his memory comes from the final day, as Roma scored in the last minute to clinch second in Serie A and say farewell to the legendary Francesco Totti.

“We knew we needed to wrap up second, but of course it was a hugely emotional moment,” Nainggolan says. “It’s not something easy. It’s difficult because 25 years in the same team is something just incredible.”

Nainggolan will miss having Totti in the dressing room.

“Honestly, I thought when I arrived, ‘Okay, yeah, in Rome it’s all about Francesco Totti’. And yeah it is a bit like this, because you can feel the people around him and stuff,” he said. “But I didn’t realise that he was such a normal person.

“There can be a lot of 'attitudes' in football, but he doesn’t have an attitude at all. He is there if you need something, he never says no, and that’s not something I really expected.

“As a player, what can I add: the qualities he has as a player he will keep forever. But for every player there is an age, a time when you come and a time when you go, and I think now – maybe it’s not quite the time to stop – but physically every year becomes harder and more difficult, especially if you are playing less as well.”

After finishing the season with Roma, Nainggolan was called up for the Belgium squad for two international games that serve as the official end to his 2016-17 campaign. With those games now completed, Nainggolan will finally have the chance to put his kit away for a while - for the first time in almost two years.

“I need this break because you need to relax, to rest your body and your mind and stop thinking about football for a bit,” he says. “A month flies past quickly, but we football players we need this because otherwise there can be too much stress. You need to go with the family, where it’s easy, and just live a little bit.

“The mental rest is key. I have played maybe 53 games this season – so that means every Thursday, then every Sunday or Monday. And that after a short summer with the Euros as well.

“So it’s a really long season, and now it will be good to just enjoy some rest and relaxation with my friends and family. It will be good to just switch off for a little bit.”

As his Player of the Season award shows, he has certainly earned it.

Radja on...

... the best goal he scored this season

“Probably one of the two against Inter. I don’t know, you know. The first one was more technically difficult; the second one was more powerful. I think the second one was perhaps more difficult, because I made a really long run – and then to find the power to hit the ball hard was so difficult. And especially against a good goalkeeper like [Samir] Handanovic."

... the toughest opponent he faced

“The toughest opponent this season? Let’s say, Jorginho from Napoli was difficult, but maybe not in the way you think. He always plays tight, with one-metre passes, and he is difficult to catch up with and disrupt. You get tired because he always moves the ball around quickly, without moving around himself. It’s not that I was in big difficulty against him, but you have to use a lot of energy to keep up with the ball and disrupt what he is trying to do. It can be really difficult sometimes."

... the return of fans to the Curva Sud

“The first few games with them back was a bit noisy – they came back, but perhaps they weren’t shouting as they can do. The last game, against Juventus, was good – and the one against Genoa was absolutely brilliant. We knew we needed to wrap up second, but of course it was a hugely emotional moment too." 

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