Dries Mertens was at his mercurial best on Wednesday night as Napoli secured a hard fought win over RB Salzburg.
The first half was enthralling as both sides pushed for the lead; a lead which the Italians eventually took through veteran striker Dries Mertens. Mertens unleashed a vicious shot from a tight angle past Salzburg goalkeeper Cican Stankovic in the first 20 minutes via a delicate header from Jose Callejon.
However, it was a goal that seemed to breathe Salzburg into life as minutes later they had a goal from Norwegian sensation Erling Haaland chalked off via VAR for offside.
Napoli goalkeeper Alex Meret was called into action twice in quick succession to prevent Haaland from finding an equaliser, before Salzburg did get their equaliser from the penalty spot through Haaland after Hwang Hee-chan was bundled over by Kevin Malcuit.
Salzburg could have felt hard done by to go into the break level, but dropped off the pace in the second half and found themselves behind again as Mertens grabbed his second of the night to surpass Diego Maradona on Napoli’s all-time scoring list with his 116th for the club.
Haaland once again found an equaliser with a well-placed header off a Zlatko Junuzovic cross. However, slack defending cost the Austrian side again as Napoli scored almost immediately from kick-off.
A lack of pressure on Mertens allowed him to find substitute Lorenzo Insigne who then lifted the ball over Coronel to seal all three points for the Italian side.
Starting XI: Stankovic (6), Kristensen (5), Ramalho (5), Ulmer (5), Wober (5), Junuzovic (6), Hwang (7), Minamino (7), Mwepu (7), Daka (8), Haaland (9).
Substitutes: Coronel (6), Ashimeru (6), Koita (n/a).
Key Talking Point
Incredible performances from Dries Mertens and goalkeeper Alex Meret played huge roles in tonight’s result. The Belgian was a constant thorn in the Austrians' side, starting quick counter-attacks and linking up play extremely well. Mertens managed to find the net twice with venomous, well timed finishes and set-up Lorenzo Insigne to score the winner.
Although Napoli spent most of the first half and chunks of the second half under the cosh, Mertens was constantly causing trouble for the Salzburg defenders up the other end. Were it not for some last ditch blocks and tackles, Mertens may well have secured his hat-trick in an impressive night’s work.
At the other end, three fantastic saves from Alex Meret were responsible for ensuring Napoli went into half time level. Danger-man Haaland broke through one-on-one with the Meret twice in two minutes but both times the 'keeper proved up to the challenge, keeping the Norwegian at bay. Just minutes later he was again called into action to prevent a fantastic Patson Daka volley from creeping into the bottom corner.
Without both mens’ performances tonight Napoli would almost certainly have been leaving Austria empty handed.
Starting XI: Meret (9), Malcuit (4), Luperto (6), Koulibaly (6), Di Lorenzo (6), Callejon (7), Allan (6), Fabian (6), Zielinski (6), Lozano (7), Mertens (10).
Substitutes: Insigne (7), Llorente (6), Elmas (n/a).
Despite a strong performance from Meret, man of the match has to go to Dries Mertens. He played a crucial role in producing counter attacks, releasing the ball quickly and making runs exploiting the weaker right hand side when he could.
Both of his goals were extremely well taken, given the difficulty of the angle for his first and the height of the ball for his second. Finally, he capped the performance off with a perfectly weighted cross for captain Lorenzo Insigne to find the winner capped off a fine performance.
Salzburg have a big fixture on Sunday in the Austrian T-Mobile Bundesliga, hosting fourth place Rapid Wien, while Napoli are also back in action on the same day, traveling to face SPAL.
The next Champions League fixtures are in early November, where the two sides will face each other in the return fixture in Italy.