Mertens could be Napoli's new Maradona
ABS-CBN Sports on Dec 20, 2016 10:00 AM
Napoli's Dries Mertens, left, celebrates after scoring during the Champions League group B soccer match between Benfica and Napoli at the Luz stadium in Lisbon, Portugal, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Steven Governo)
DANIELLA MATAR, Associated Press
MILAN (AP) — A mix between Diego Maradona and Gonzalo Higuain?
Plaudits don't get much better for a Napoli player, but that is just some of the praise that is being heaped on Dries Mertens after another fantastic display on Sunday.
After scoring a hat trick against Cagliari the previous week, Mertens went one better against Torino, putting four past England goalkeeper Joe Hart.
Mertens completed his hat trick in nine first-half minutes and then saved the best until last — a sublime chip into the far corner in the 80th minute.
The Belgium winger is now drawing comparisons to Higuain for his number of goals and Maradona for his style of play.
Indeed, Mertens' fourth goal was Maradona-esque.
"Let's say I've got a way to go," Mertens said when asked about the comparison.
Maradona is still revered in Naples after leading the team to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.
No one has scored successive hat tricks in Serie A since 1974, while it was the quickest treble since Andriy Shevchenko scored three in seven minutes for AC Milan in 2000.
The last Napoli player to net four goals in a top-flight match was Giuseppe Savoldi on December 18, 1977 — a gap of exactly 39 years.
Mertens' emergence has eased the pain caused by Higuain's departure in the offseason. Higuain transferred to Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after breaking a 66-year-old Serie A record with 36 goals for Napoli last season.
Arkadiusz Milik was signed to replace him and scored seven goals in eight matches, but tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for Poland in October.
As a result, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Mertens as a "falso nueve" — false No. 9 — flanked by Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne. And the trio is starting to gel.
Mertens has netted eight goals in his past three matches in all competition, and a total of 10 in the league. Not bad for a player who is not even a forward.
"He's scored 10 goals like Higuain or am I mistaken?" Napoli President Aurelio De Laurentiis said after the 5-3 win over Torino.
Both players are level in the scoring charts, with two goals less than Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi, Roma striker Edin Dzeko and Torino youngster Andrea Belotti.
"I feel good playing in this team," Mertens said. "We are doing a great job and the coach is instilling in us his way of playing, which I think is the best for this team."
Unlike previous Napoli stars who have left the club at the height of their powers in recent years — such as Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain, or Higuain — Mertens seems to have a genuine love for the city.
The 29-year-old Belgian, who joined from PSV Eindhoven in 2013, often posts pictures on social media of himself around Naples, along with captions calling the city "home" or saying "no place I'd rather be." Mertens and his wife also went to a Halloween party dressed as two of his teammates — Insigne and Marek Hamsik.
The latest photo Mertens posted, on Monday morning, was of a figurine of himself — in his Napoli kit — looking out over the city.