After a goalless draw with Genk on Matchday 2, Napoli’s last-gasp victory over RB Salzburg in the Champions League last Wednesday night put them back in control of Group E, but goalscoring hero Dries Mertens had even more reason to cheer.
Netting a double against the Austrian champions took the 32-year-old’s tally for the Partenopei to 116, edging him past the legendary Diego Maradona in the process and closing in on former teammate Marek Hamsik.
With the Slovakian topping the charts with 121 goals, Mertens is just two hat-tricks away from becoming the club’s all-time leading marksman and could well achieve the feat before the Serie A winter break.
Despite the Belgian’s impressive scoring stats though, they arguably distort how he should be remembered in the Napoli history books compared to the man he overtook at the Red Bull Arena.
Maradona was a phenomenon and transformed the fortunes of the club from the moment he set foot in the city to the moment he departed in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, captaining the Partenopei to two Serie A titles, a Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup.
Mertens had a far more difficult start to life at the San Paolo during the summer of 2013, struggling to make an impact on the pitch and secure a permanent place in coach Rafael Benitez’s starting XI.
While the ex-PSV Eindhoven man’s form over the last three years – 70 percent of his goal haul has been achieved within that period – has been stunning, but came more from luck than through by convincing people of his seemingly untapped scoring prolificacy.
After new signing Arek Milik was injured almost on arrival ahead of the 2016/17 campaign, the Belgium international was thrust into a central role by coach Maurizio Sarri and scored a career-best 28 goals. The total wasn’t enough to beat Edin Dzeko of Roma to the Capocannoniere crown though.
Something that Mertens has also done to raise his standing in the eyes of the Neapolitan faithful is fully embrace life in Naples, in a somewhat more wholesome way than El Diego did during his time in the city.
Given the nickname of ‘Ciro’ – a popular name throughout the southern city – he also speaks positively of an elderly neighbour that pops round to his home postgame to give an honest critic of his performance. Highlighting how they have embraced each other in equal measure.
The statistics and emotions aside, though, the former Gent youth prospect has someway to go to usurp the Argentinean in the hearts of Neapolitans even if he does eventually rise to the top of the scoring charts by the seasons close.