Radja Nainggolan was supposed to be the jewel in Inter Milan’s midfield this season.
In their return to the Champions League for the first time in seven years, the Belgian bruiser was sounded out as the man to help the 2010 winners seriously challenge the big boys of Europe.
Signed in the summer from their Serie A rivals Roma, the Nerazzurri forked out €24 million for his services, and added Davide Santon and Nicolo Zaniolo as makeweights to sweeten the deal.
But from the outset, Nainggolan has been hampered by injuries and missed the big games against Barcelona, Lazio and Juventus, while he limped out of matches with Milan and Spurs before half-time.
Inter were ultimately knocked out of the Champions League at the first hurdle.
What’s worse for them is that Zaniolo has flourished in the Eternal City.
The 19-year-old has expertly filled the Nainggolan-shaped gap in Roma’s team and has been arguably the side’s most eye-catching player this season.
Playing in the ‘trequartista’ role, Zaniolo has scored three times in Serie A after establishing himself in the first-team back in November, while earlier this week he announced himself to the European stage by netting both of Roma’s goals in their 2-1 win over Porto in the Champions League round of 16.
Switching Nainggolan for Zaniolo now looks like the biggest transfer coup of the season.
Inter only have themselves to blame, as Zaniolo’s brilliance was already evident while he was at the club.
Last season, he helped Inter’s youth side win the Primavera championship and finished as the team’s top-scorer with 13 goals in the process, but he failed to make a single appearance for their first-team.
He also inspired Italy to the runners-up place at the 2018 Under-19 European Championships, thriving alongside other youngsters such as Moise Kean and Sandro Tonali.
In fact, so evident was his talent, that Roberto Mancini decided to add him to Italy’s senior squad back in the summer before he’d even made his debut for Roma, claiming the youngster had “qualities that Italian football has been missing for years”.
Naturally, the plaudits and comparisons have started to come in.
For starters, Zaniolo’s brilliant start to life at the Stadio Olimpico has reignited the No.10 debate among some of club’s supporters.
On Boxing Day, Zaniolo notched his first Serie A goal with a terrific Francesco Totti-esque chip against Sassuolo, with many believing the teenager could one day don Il Gladiatore’s famous shirt.
Totti’s not the only former great who’s been likened to the youngster, with Stefano Vecchi, who coached Zaniolo at Inter, saying: “In my opinion, he’s a midfielder of quality and energy, a Gerrard or Lampard.”
But the player himself has modelled his game on Milan great Kaka, saying: “I always liked Kaka. I know I still have to improve a lot but I hope one day I will become like him because he has always been a role model for me.”
Extending Zaniolo’s contract will now become a priority for Roma’s sporting director Monchi and their president James Pallotta, with the world beginning to wake up to the youngster’s talent.
There’s already rumours that Juventus sent a scout to watch his run-out against Porto on Tuesday, with the Serie A leaders clearly considering a summer bid.
But even if Juve do manage to snap him up, you can bet that Roma will get a much better deal than Inter did for perhaps one of Italy’s most exciting prospects for years.
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