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Birthday brace for Mertens as Napoli go second

© AFP | Napoli's Dries Mertens celebrates with teammates after scoring against Cagliari on May 6, 2017 at the San Paolo Stadium in Naples

MILAN (AFP) - 

Dries Mertens hit a brace on his 30th birthday to maintain his bid for the top goalscorer award as Napoli cruised to a 3-1 win over Cagliari to move up to second in Serie A.

Despite the recent return to action, and pleas for more playing time, by Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik, Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri has stubbornly favoured Mertens as the southerners look to boost their hopes of automatic Champions League qualification.

And the Belgium midfielder, who has been playing as a striker since Milik injured his anterior cruciate ligament last October, repaid Sarri's faith with a double strike that took his league tally to 24 goals.

With three games remaining for Napoli this campaign, Mertens is now tied with Inter Milan striker Mauro Icardi, the pair just one goal shy of leading duo Andrea Belotti of Torino and Edin Dzeko of Roma.

Napoli, meanwhile, moved up to second to sit seven points behind leaders Juventus before they host Torino in the city derby later Saturday.

Roma dropped to third, two points behind Napoli, before a tricky fixture on Sunday where AC Milan, five points behind the Europa League places, will look to ruin what will be Francesco Totti's final visit to the San Siro as a player.

Last week, Roma sporting director Monchi ended doubts about the 40-year-old club icon's future as a player when he confirmed Totti would soon began a role in management.

It took only two minutes for Mertens to send Napoli on their way to a 23rd win of the season, the Belgian getting behind the Cagliari defence to fire home from Faouzi Ghoulam's whipped cross from the left.

It was Napoli's 100th goal in all competitions this term, and more was to come.

Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and captain Marek Hamsik, with a spectacular lob from midfield that almost beat out-of-position 'keeper Rafael, all came close in a one-sided opening half.

Mertens had his second four minutes after the restart when he drilled past Rafael from the edge of the box, before setting up Insigne for a curler into the far top corner on 67 minutes.

Cagliari hit a late consolation when Diego Farias beat Pepe Reina on the counter.

© 2017 AFP