Unlikely hero Dries Mertens helping Napoli quickly forget about Higuain
It is curious how, despite the number of Belgium's so-called golden generation to have established themselves at elite clubs around the continent, the country is still yet to produce a top goal scorer in one of Europe's top five leagues. That looks like it finally might change this season.
The four goals Everton striker Romelu Lukaku fired past Bournemouth last Saturday moved him to the top of the scoring charts in the Premier League. Later that day, his international teammate Dries Mertens hit another hat trick -- his third of the campaign -- and, for 48 hours at least, led the race to become Serie A's Capocannoniere and a most unlikely one at that.
Like Lukaku, the Napoli forward's goals at the weekend took him to 16 for the season in the league. Both find themselves in the mix for the European Golden Shoe, trailing only Edinson Cavani, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Edin Dzeko. A lot has been made of the fact only Neymar (183) and Lionel Messi (150) were more prolific at Lukaku's age of 23, but the Belgian's numbers are about in line with what you would expect from a player of his reputation and potential. Plus, Lukaku is a striker.
Mertens is not. He turns 30 in May and while by no means an old dog, he is learning new tricks. Though it's true Mertens found the back of the net 21 times in his penultimate season at PSV Eindhoven, he has played as a winger for most of his career. What he is achieving this season is nothing short of remarkable. More remarkable even than what his friend Lukaku is doing in England.
Frankly no one saw this coming. Not least because Mertens has almost always been the backup's backup at Napoli. As if jostling for a place on the left-wing with local lad Lorenzo Insigne wasn't already enough, the competition to play as a striker was even fiercer. Last year, Manolo Gabbiadini was Gonzalo Higuain's stand-in. This year, Gabbiadini was Arkadiusz Milik's stand-in. To make this position his own, Mertens has not only had to adapt his game, he's had to leap some pretty high hurdles.
Of course, some luck has been involved. Milik badly injured his knee on international duty with Poland after scoring seven goals in eight games for his new club and only returned to the bench at the weekend. Gabbiadini never felt Maurizio Sarri had complete faith in him. Even after buying Milik, attempts were made to bring Mauro Icardi and Nikola Kalinic to the San Paolo. Icardi's wife Wanda Nara was even offered a role in one of president Aurelio De Laurentiis' films. Napoli's actions did little for Gabbiadini's confidence and when his opportunity finally came with Milik facing a prolonged spell on the sidelines, he couldn't take advantage.
Sarri could have persisted with him. Most managers probably would have done so. Gabbiadini was the one player in the squad with experience as a striker. But he was unsuited to Napoli's style and looked out of place. A foreign object. It was October. The transfer window wouldn't open for another three months. Sarri couldn't wait for it and besides, he has always considered it an excuse: "Everyone takes refuge in it."
People forget a coach's job is to coach, not to buy players. Almost 60 and in only his third season in the top flight, the years Sarri spent in the lower divisions where money is tight taught him to make do with what you've got and get creative. So he improvised.
Mertens had always been an impact sub for Sarri. Only six of his 33 appearances in Serie A last season were from the start. On the very edge of the starting XI, Mertens apparently used to fill in as a striker for the team they practiced against in training at Castel Volturno. In preseason, Sarri also experimented with him in the role.
As such, Mertens' evolution was neither completely by accident nor by design. But a bit of both. Since December, he has exploded. Thirteen of his 16 goals have come in his past eight appearances. That's one every 57.6 minutes and his performance against Torino was arguably the best by any player in Serie A this season.
The timing of it has delighted Napoli fans. Mertens had scored a hat trick the previous weekend, then on the Monday the Champions League draw pitted them against Real Madrid. When game day finally came around again, it just so happened to coincide with the 2016 FIFA Club World Cup final in Japan. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat trick for Real. Mertens' response was to go one better. He rifled in four against Torino.
In Serie A, no one since Pietro Anastasi in 1974 has scored hat tricks in consecutive games. No one since Antonio Angelillo in 1958 has struck seven times in back-to-back appearances. No one since Andriy Shevchenko in 2000 has scored a faster hat trick.
Mertens' fourth, a lob, from close range at an acute angle, was one of the goals of the season. The next day, Corriere dello Sport's front page renamed him Diego Armando Mertens. Maradona himself had a photo taken with Mertens' shirt before playfully suggesting that his lob wasn't a lob. It was a cross!
Like Milik before him, El Dries has helped Napoli forget Higuain. Mention El Pipita to Napoli fans these days and they shrug their shoulders as if to say they don't know what on earth you're talking about. "Gonzalo who?" At the moment, they are taking great pleasure in pointing out the fact that Mertens is ahead of him in the Serie A scoring charts.
As with Higuain last season, Mertens' natural goal-scoring ability has been boosted, supercharged by Napoli's electric football. As we saw with Gabbiadini, however, not everyone can plug into it. Mertens has shown himself to be one hell of an adapter, though, and Real will have to be careful. They could be in for a shock.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.