Though he may not be on the stage when the 2017 Ballon d’Or winner is announced – the usual suspects, with the possible addition of Gigi Buffon, will, doubtless, be on the rostrum – there are few players who have been as exciting to watch this season as Napoli’s Dries Mertens.
For those who still enjoy churning out the age-old cliché of Italian football being less exciting than your average game of chess, I have a simple suggestion: watch Napoli and Mertens.
Throughout the 2016/17 campaign, the Partenopei have played with a suave swagger, particularly in the final third of the park. Central to this attacking fluidity has been Mertens, the diminutive Belgian, who turned 30 earlier this month. The attacking trio of Mertens, Jose Callejon and local lad Lorenzo Insigne have 57 Serie A goals between them this season and 28 assists. With 27 league goals, Mertens is Napoli’s top scorer and, going into the final round of fixtures, is one goal short of Roma’s Edin Dzeko in the race to be crowned Capocannoniere.
Mertens signalled his intent from the outset – scoring both Napoli’s goals in a 2-2 draw with Pescara on the opening day of the Serie A season. The Belgian added another double in an impressive Champions League victory over Benfica in September.
However, a major turning point in the club’s season arrived in October when Arkaduisz Milik, who was signed in the close season from Ajax to replace record-breaking goal scorer Gonzalo Higauin, and who, like Mertens, had hit the ground running, suffered a serious knee injury that would keep him out for almost the remainder of the season.
Milik’s injury led Napoli’s coach Maurizio Sarri to experiment with a front trio of Mertens, Insigne and Callejon. Standing at 5’7, 5’4 and 5’10 respectively, and in stark comparison to the imposing, target man figure of Milik, a change of playing style was required. Following the adjustment, the trio sparked into life before the Christmas break with Mertens, in particular, in scintillating form.
The Belgian’s four-goal haul against Torino on 18 December – following a treble against Cagliari the previous weekend - meant he was the first player since 1974 to net consecutive hat-tricks in Serie A. Mertens’ fourth goal against Torino was an audacious chip over Joe Hart from the edge of the box. Slow motion replays show the English goalkeeper gasping in disbelief at the impudence of the effort.
Mertens’ terrific form continued after the Christmas break. The Belgian netted another hat-trick in a crushing 7-1 victory over Bologna – a match that also included a memorable treble from Napoli’s talismanic captain Marek Hamsik. Mertens has also stepped up to the plate in more important matches for the Partenopei. He scored a crucial brace in a 2-1 victory away to Roma, with whom Napoli have spent the majority of the season battling for second place behind Juventus. He also netted in the second leg of the Champions League last 16-tie against Real Madrid, giving Napoli brief hope that they could overturn a first leg defeat to the reigning champions, who eventually ran out 6-2 winners on aggregate.
In addition to finishing moves, Mertens weaving runs and incisive passing have created a hatful of goals for his partners in crime this season. There has been craft and artistry to the Partenopei’s play, with rapier-like passes through the heart of opposition centre-back partnerships proving to be a ruthless means of attack. If Mertens hasn’t been playing on the shoulder, picking the pockets of unsuspecting defenders, he has been providing the ammunition for Callejon and Insigne. The full range of the trio’s artillery was on display two weeks ago with Torino, once again, being the hapless cannon fodder in a 5-0 demolition.
Although there have been countless showpiece moments this season, perhaps Mertens’ double against Fiorentina last weekend (a game Napoli won 4-1 to mean they are one point behind second place Roma going into the final round of fixtures), was as significant as any. Both goals were what could be described as ‘poacher’s finishes’ – the first, capitalising on a mistake from the goalkeeper to poke the ball home from two yards, while his second was a rebound finish that Vincenzo Montella in his pomp would have been proud of. The goals were a symbol of how much the Belgian has developed under Sarri. At the beginning of the season, he was deployed as part of Milik’s supporting cast, whereas Mertens is now the ruthless focal point of Napoli’s attack.
His displays have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, Mertens made headlines when he turned down a big money move to China, declaring that such a transfer would have disappointed his parents. “I have so much respect for what my parents did for me. They did not raise me talking about money – I would have disappointed them if I went to China,” he was quoted as saying. There has also been intense speculation linking Mertens with a move to the English Premier League this summer – with Manchester United, Chelsea and West Ham apparently among his suitors.
Napoli fans, and fans of Serie A in general, will be hoping Mertens stays put. The Belgian’s play and his amiable nature are in keeping with what Napoli fans idolise. In Mertens, Insigne, Callejon and Hamsik, they have footballers and icons with whom they can truly identify. These players may not have brought the silverware of the Maradona era, but they have made a team, and its proud fans, truly a joy to watch.
The fact that Mertens is unlikely to be recognised as Europe’s top player this season is a testament to the extraordinarily high standards set by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in recent years. There is no doubt, though, that the Belgian is now an A-list footballer.
Indeed, if this is what chess looks like, somebody get me a board, some rooks and some pawns.
Words by Martin Dunlop: @Dunlop85'
Martin's passion for Italian football kicked off with the 'Notti Magiche' of Italia '90 - from Toto Schillachi to Ciao, the mascot. He thinks the San Siro stadium is the finest building in the world!'