By 90Min
October 27, 2019

There are not many players who are so fiercely revered by their former supporters, that their face is emblazoned on every giant flag which waves through the air, nearly 30 years after their departure from the club.

If you walk around the chaotic city of Naples, you'll quickly realise that football is the people's religion, and Diego Maradona is their chosen messiah. 

A man who had no geographical or emotional connection to the club prior to his arrival, Maradona became the most loved man in the south of Italy when he propelled Napoli to unthinkable title success in 1987 and 1990.

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Even now, stickers, posters and mini-statues of the Argentine superstar litter the streets, his name still rings around the Stadio San Paolo every week and his heroics are immortalised on le bandiere, swaying from side to side for 90 minutes. 


It's hard to imagine that such a hero could be matched, or even surpassed in the hearts of the Neapolitans. But there's one man who is recognised as one of the very best in Italy, but has continued to fly under the radar as one of Europe's most talented players - that is, until his record-breaking endeavours thrust him into the spotlight last week.


With a typically excellent brace against Red Bull Salzburg in midweek, Dries Mertens overtook Maradona to become Napoli's second-highest scorer of all-time, boasting an impressive tally of 116 goals. The Belgium international is chasing down top scorer and ex-teammate Marek Hamsik, another man who is loved unconditionally by the Napoli faithful. 

Mertens is sure to break the record this season and write his name into the club's long history, but his contribution to football deserves to be celebrated by the whole of Europe, given the quality and ability of the man. 

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The 32-year-old has not undergone the most orthodox rise to the top of European football, remaining in the Dutch Eredivisie until his mid-twenties when Napoli finally came knocking for the tricky winger. Mertens excelled with PSV Eindhoven, scoring 14 league goals and providing a staggering 17 assists for his teammates in his final season with the club. 

The winger impressed then-Napoli manager Rafa Benitez with his direct running and his selfless nature from a wide position, but despite a promising opening season with his new team, Mertens was forced to play second fiddle to the irrepressible Gonzalo Higuain for the next couple of years. 

Higuain went onto to break the league record for goals in a single season in the 2015/16 campaign, finding the net 36 times in 35 matches, which proved to be his final act in the light blue shirt, before making the unforgivable move north to arch rivals Juventus

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In search of a fitting replacement for the Argentine striker, Maurizio Sarri turned to Mertens, and converted the flitting winger into an out-and-out striker. It was under Sarri that the Belgian star truly flourished and realised his potential, becoming part of Napoli's potent attacking trident alongside José Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne. 

Mertens adapted to life as a central striker with aplomb, bagging 28 league goals in his first season up top and transforming into a completely different animal. The Napoli star's numbers dropped slightly over the next two campaigns, but his overall game arguably improved as he continued to learn his new trade. 

The Belgian forward is one of the best in the business at using space to his advantage, and pulling apart defences with his constant running. The understanding and cohesion between the front three allows each player the freedom to cross lines, come short or run in behind, and the combined blistering pace leaves little room for error for the panicking defenders. 

Lorenzo Insigne,Jorginho,Jose Callejon,Dries Mertens

Mertens is the star of the trio however, and the selflessness he showed at PSV is one of the key features in Napoli's attacking buildup play. The diminutive forward is excellent with the ball at his feet and possesses an impressive core strength, allowing him to fend off tackles from even the strongest defenders - much like his predecessor, Maradona. 

The striker still possesses the flair and creativity of the winger he once was, and whilst some converted wide men only focus on the goalscoring aspect of their game, Mertens has embraced his unpredictable streak, producing some sublime and daring assists from outrageous positions for his grateful teammates. 

Mertens' most undeniable improvement has come in front of goal however. It may seem obvious, given the dramatic increase in his goal return over recent years, but that shouldn't take away from what a great achievement it really is. Wingers rarely break into the list of top scorers, and if they do, then they are converted into a striker as quickly as possible. 

But until Sarri took a chance on the Belgian, Mertens had rarely been considered lethal enough to shoulder the goalscoring responsibility of one of Europe's biggest and most demanding clubs. That all changed during his breakthrough season leading the line, and the little magician produced some of the most ambitious and technically complex finishes that Serie A had ever seen. 

Whilst the rest of Europe was still sleeping, Italy was beginning to realise that Mertens was developing into one of the very best in the business. Perhaps the Napoli forward is overlooked because of his advancing years; it's not as trendy to wax lyrical about a man approaching the twilight of his career when you can overhype a youngster who has impressed in his first couple of months of professional football. 

Whether Mertens is interested in drawing the acclaim of Europe's most respected pundits is questionable, but he knows that a dramatic and not entirely unrealistic title success with Napoli would write his name into the club's history forever. 

The striker is on the brink of a tremendous personal accolade, but a Serie A trophy would mean more to the supporters, Mertens himself, and the legacy he is building at the San Paolo. A man worthy of being revered like Diego himself in the streets of Naples.

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