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Can Turin Derby spark Ola Aina renaissance?

9:59 am AEST 2/5/19
Ola Aina
Having gone off the boil in recent weeks, the Chelsea loanee will be out to ride on the wave of Torino's European chase to trigger a return to form

Torino’s 2-0 victory over AC Milan on Sunday was significant for two reasons: it signified the Bull’s first victory over I Rossoneri since 2001, while those three vital points took them into sixth place, with the out of form Lombardy giants dropping to seventh.

In his first season at the helm, Walter Mazzarri could take the Turin outfit back into the Europa League for the first time since 2014/15, while the three-point deficit to Atalanta in fourth means a Champions League slot isn’t out of reach.

Even though making Europe’s top club competition in its current guise for the first time represents Mazzarri’s top target, the smaller matter of Ola Aina tailing off at the end of the campaign ought to worry the former Watford boss.

Up until early March, the Chelsea loanee had been one of the trainer’s trusted lieutenants in the side owing to his relative consistency over the course of the season. Aina’s form and impact in Turin had been so substantial that the club thought about making his short-term spell permanent in January.

He’s thrived with the Maroons, slightly outperforming the pair of Lorenzo De Silvestri and Cristian Ansaldi in both wing-back positions. Over the course of the campaign, the Blues loanee boasts a better pass completion rate, while either matching or beating the pair in interceptions per game, duels won per game and successful tackles.

Ansaldi does trump him for goal contributions, though, with the Argentinian’s trio of goals and pair of assists outdoing the Nigeria international’s one and two respectively (similar to De Silvestri’s numbers). It’s easy to nitpick in an attempt to justify the full-back’s decline in form, nevertheless, it should be noted that this year has been Aina’s first at a really high level.

This is no disrespect to the Championship, where the pacey defender maintained a good level of effectiveness for large periods with Hull City. While the second tier of English football perhaps tests endurance more than anything else, the tactical nature of the Serie A would have posed a different sort of challenge.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Aina’s lull is self-inflicted.

At the start of March, Torino played host to relegation-threated Bologna and were strong favorites to pick up all three points against the struggling Red and Blues at Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. However, the away side stunned an expectant home crowd to win 3-2.

Tempers boiled over and Aina received his marching orders in the game’s closing stages. Strangely, his form hasn’t picked up since. Left out of the side a few times and unimpressive when he’s been selected or introduced, the Nigerian seems to be ending the season with a whimper. The peak of the London-born defender’s wretched run came against Genoa where he was badly off the pace and struggled for the game’s entirety.

For a bit of context: the left wing-back won only a sole duel from a possible 13, failed at all five attempts to dribble past his marker, committed a few fouls and was guilty of being caught in possession a couple of times. Frankly, it was a surprise Aina lasted 90 minutes at Luigi Ferraris having played appallingly, but, perhaps, Mazzarri’s hands were tied by the limited options he had on the bench.

Unsurprisingly, the underperforming wingback was dropped for last week’s monumental victory over Gennaro Gattuso’s side and it remains to be seen if he’ll feature against the Old Lady. There are no guarantees but if Aina is on top form, his skillset can be pivotal against Italy’s dominant side, like it was against Napoli before the loanee’s form dipped.

At San Paolo, the defender’s recovery pace was an asset defensively just as it was on the few occasions the Maroons broke forward.

It’s unlikely that Mazzarri trusts Aina at the Allianz Stadium and it’ll be a real shame given that Torino could use someone who fits his profile against a Juve side that’s lost their way lately.

For the on-loan defender, the greater worry has to be how his sudden regression will affect Gernot Rohr’s thinking going into this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, as it was his bright start to the season that led to his series of caps for Nigeria. Admittedly, those appearances probably came about as a consequence of Abdullahi Shehu’s temporary absence as well as Tyronne Ebuehi’s long-term injury.

Nevertheless, it seemed like he was pushing for a place in the side then, but now seems far away from a starting berth in both full-back positions.

Contrast Aina’s current malaise to Nicolas Nkoulou, who’s done well to overcome a modest start to the season and has come on in leaps and bounds since late 2018. The Cameroon international has been pivotal in the Bull’s European charge, playing his part in a stingy defence that’s conceded just 29 goals all season – only bettered by Juventus’ 24 and Inter Milan’s 28. They’ve kept 15 clean sheets this term, with nine of those shut-outs coming since the turn of the year.

While the former might not play a significant role for the Super Eagles at the Afcon, the latter appears destined to miss out on Cameroon's title defence, having refused to end his self-imposed international exile.

For Aina, while recent weeks threaten to dilute his noticeable development this year, it’s been a productive campaign.

The bigger picture should tell a story of an improved full-back who’s played his part in what could turn out to be a historic year for Torino.