Alasdair Mackenzie Date: 26th February 2020 at 11:55am
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Napoli’s meeting with Barcelona was dominated by the shadow of the greatest player to ever pull on the blue shirt: Diego Maradona.

With Lionel Messi visiting the Stadio San Paolo for the first time, all eyes were on how the Argentine great would perform on the territory of one of the few players who can rival him in a debate over who is the greatest footballer of all time.

In that context, there was something beautifully poetic about Dries Mertens stealing the spotlight and issuing a reminder of his own status as a modern great for the Partenopei.

The Belgian curled in an exquisite opener after half an hour to join Marek Hamsik at the top of the club’s all-time scoring charts on 121 goals.

While things didn’t go as Mertens would’ve wished from that point onwards, as he was forced off with injury early in the second half before Barca found an equaliser, his unstoppable finish was the latest reminder that the striker is a man for the big occasion.

The 32-year-old now has six goals in seven Champions League games in 2019/20, a new record for a Napoli player in a single season in Europe’s top club competition.

Those include two against European and world champions Liverpool, and now one against Messi’s formidable Catalan cohort.

In Serie A last season, he found the net against the likes of Inter, Roma, Juventus, Atalanta and AC Milan, as well as scoring against PSG in the Champions League group stages.

The bigger the opponent, the bigger the occasion, the more likely Mertens is to pop up at the right moment.

His records don’t end there either, as Mertens surpassed Hamsik on Tuesday as the player with the most Napoli appearances in the Champions League with 33.

It’s all rather remarkable when you remember that until October 2016, the former PSV man was a frustrated winger, stuck behind Lorenzo Insigne in the San Paolo pecking order.

Arkadiusz Milik’s serious injury that month, and Manolo Gabbiadini’s failure to convince as the Pole’s replacement, resulted in Maurizio Sarri having the vision to play Mertens through the middle.

It was an astonishing success, as the pocket-sized centre-forward struck 34 goals in all competitions, including 28 in Serie A.

His scoring rate has been impressively consistent ever since, with 18 and 16-goal hauls coming in the following two seasons, while this term he’s four strikes away from a fourth successive year of hitting double figures in the league.

He has surpassed the achievements of some players with huge names and reputations along the way.

Mertens has waved at giants of modern Napoli history – Gonzalo Higuain and Edinson Cavani – and those of the past – Diego Maradona and Jose Altafini – on his way up the club’s scoring charts.

The question now is how much further he can go. The Belgian has at least three months left to notch the goal that will earn him the record outright, but what happens after that remains shrouded in mystery.

His contract expires in the summer and there have been no end of rumours circling about his chances of staying, or where he might head to next.

Whatever happens, he will be remembered as a modern Napoli great, and an unexpected one too. All hail Dries.