Martinez: That’s the Nainggolan I wanted to see

Radja Nainggolan may have just played his way back into the Belgium squad. Injury ruled the bulldozing midfielder out of October’s 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, and, following emphatic 4-0 and 6-0 wins respectively, Roberto Martinez overlooked him for his latest selection – a decision Nainggolan publicly questioned.

Rather than take exception to the comments, Martinez insisted he was a big fan of Nainggolan and travelled to the Italian capital to watch him in action for Roma against AC Milan on Monday. There, the Diables Rouges coach saw the heavily-inked 28-year-old deliver a sovereign performance and score a superb, unanswered goal.

“That’s the Nainggolan I wanted to see,” declared Martinez, excitedly. "He can play anywhere in the middle of the park. He's got great ability and his attributes are probably highlighted more when he's given greater freedom to roam.”

In Serie A’s previous round, Nainggolan decorated a man-of-the-match display with a stunning, swerving strike as Roma won the Rome Derby 2-0. I Giallorossi are second, four points behind Juventus. “I'm pleased he found the net against Milan,” said Martinez. “I know he scored another great goal against Lazio."

Belgium lead Group H in Russia 2018 qualifying, two points above Greece and five clear of third-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina. Les Diables Rouges return to action in March, when the Greeks visit Brussels. "There's still time before I name my next squad,” said Martinez. “We’ll see how things go.”

Nainggolan has long been a polarising figure in Belgium. Despite being regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet, he was left out of the squad for Brazil 2014 by then-coach Marc Wilmots. The former Piacenza and Cagliari man, who has never played club football outside Italy, scored twice at UEFA EURO 2016, including a scorching swerver against Wales in the quarter-finals.

Only Brazil (20), Germany (18), Italy (18), Argentina (16), Mexico (15), England (14), France (14) and Spain (14) have participated in more World Cups than Belgium (12). Their best performance came in 1986, when Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo and Co edged USSR 4-3 after extra time in the Round of 16 in one of the competition’s greatest-ever matches. Les Diables Rouges then eliminated Spain on penalties before losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in the semi-finals.