Milan (AFP) – Makeshift Napoli striker Dries Mertens hit a brace in a thrilling 2-1 win away to Roma that has put Juventus firmly on track for a record sixth consecutive Serie A title.
Belgium midfielder Mertens was given the nod ahead of striker Arkadiusz Milik despite the Poland star’s recent return from a five-month injury lay-off.
And coach Maurizio Sarri’s intuition proved right ahead of an entertaining encounter that saw Napoli soak up long spells of pressure to see Mertens expose gaping holes in the Roma defence.
Napoli took a 1-0 lead into half-time at the Stadio Olimpico after Mertens struck against the run of play to flick the ball over onrushing Wojciech Szczesny on 26 minutes.
Mertens completed his brace, taking his league tally for the season to 18 goals, five minutes into the second half with another cool finish following Lorenzo Insigne’s inswinger towards the back post.
When Kevin Strootman reduced arrears on 89 minutes it sparked a dramatic late fightback from Roma that saw Pepe Reina acrobatically palm a drive off the crossbar before clearing with his leg.
But Napoli, who saw Sarri sent to the stands for dissent midway through the second period, held on for a valuable win.
After virtually dropping out of title contention last week following a 2-0 defeat to Atalanta which left them trailing Juventus by 12 points, Napoli have now done the Turin giants a favour.
A win at Udinese on Sunday will see Juventus take their lead over second-placed Roma to 10 points, with Napoli now only two points behind Luciano Spalletti’s men in the race for the second automatic Champions League spot.
Roma stunned Napoli at the San Paolo earlier in the campaign, but have since emerged as one of the top teams in Europe.
With three hat-tricks to his name so far, Mertens was an automatic starter and repaid Sarri’s faith tenfold with a performance that will make it even harder for Milik to reclaim his position.
But Roma’s defence made the diminutive midfielder’s job easy.
Roma were in control for most of the opening period but Federico Fazio and Kostal Manolas suffered the first of several lapses on 26 minutes when Marek Hamsik squeezed a great ball between them for Mertens to run in and chip the onrushing Szczesny.
Roma were shook up but when Stephan El Shaarawy won back possession in the area to set up Strootman the Dutchman ballooned over from 10 yards.
Mertens almost doubled Napoli’s lead six minutes before the break when he flicked over Szczesny but it was chalked off after after the Belgian’s earlier foul on Fazio.
Roma showed promise immediately after the restart but Radja Nainggolan’s drive came off the leg of Kalidou Koulibaly.
Minutes later, Mertens doubled Napoli’s lead in style. Roma lost possession as they tried to break and after a swift exchange of passes Insigne delivered a great curling ball for Mertens at the back post where he was left unmarked by Fazio.
Roma fought back again, but a superb Reina was at full stretch to tip Diego Perotti’s curling right-footer out for a corner.
Spalletti replaced Fazio with Bruno Peres, with Mohamed Salah coming on for Stephan El Shaarawy.
Salah’s impact was immediate but the Egyptian reaped little reward for his efforts, seeing a late strike come off Reina’s post before the ‘keeper kept out Perotti’s late strike that came off the crossbar.