Record-breaking Mertens sends Napoli to Italian Cup final
Dries Mertens fired Napoli to the Italian Cup final on Saturday after netting the goal which gave his side a 2-1 aggregate semi-final win over Inter Milan and made him the club's all-time top scorer.
Napoli will face Juventus in Wednesday's final in Rome thanks to Belgium forward Mertens, who slotted home his 122nd goal for Napoli four minutes before half-time to make the score 1-1 on the night and give them overall victory after a 1-0 first-leg win at the San Siro in February.
Christian Eriksen had levelled the tie for Inter straight from a corner in the second minute and the away side continued to dominate the first half, but Mertens ended a lightning counter-attack to put the hosts through at the Stadio San Paolo.
"We wanted the final at all costs and we achieved that. Now we need to recuperate and be ready for the final in a few days," said Lorenzo Insigne, who set up Merten's winner.
Mertens, 33, overtakes Marek Hamsik and moves seven clear of Diego Maradona, who scored 115 goals in all competitions and won two Serie A titles and the UEFA Cup over his seven tumultuous years in southern Italy.
Although there were no fans in the stands at the San Paolo, public broadcaster RAI reported that a small number of Napoli supporters that had gathered outside the San Paolo set off fireworks throughout half-time in celebration of Merten's goal and after the match.
Mertens moved to Napoli from PSV Eindhoven in 2013 and has become so settled in Naples that fans have nicknamed him 'Ciro', a hugely common Neapolitan name. Sporting director Christian Giuntoli said pre-match that both club and player want to extend his contract, set to expire at the end of the month.
Napoli will take on Juve at the Italian capital's Stadio Olimpico after Maurizio Sarri's side squeezed past AC Milan on away goals following a 0-0 draw in Turin on Friday, Italy's first competitive football match since the country become the global coronavirus epicentre.
- Ospina fends off Inter -
As with Friday's match, Napoli and Inter players gathered around the centre circle for a minute's silence in tribute to the more than 34,000 people who have died in Italy as a result of COVID-19.
There will likely be a big television audience for two of Italy's best-supported clubs.
According to Italian media, some 8.3 million people tuned into RAI to watch Friday's goalless draw at Juve's Allianz Stadium, the largest TV audience for a football match this season.
They were immediately thrown into the action thanks to Eriksen, whose near-post cross from a corner flashed past a host of players and squirmed under a surprised David Ospina in the Napoli goal.
Inter then dominated for long stretches of the first half, and should have gone two ahead on the night seconds before Mertens struck when Antonio Candreva opted to shoot, forcing a good save from Ospina, with three teammates ready for a pass in the box.
Ospina was then crucial to Napoli going ahead in the tie, as it was his quick pass which sent Insigne scurrying towards the Inter area.
The Italy international drew defenders towards him before releasing a perfect pass for Mertens, who stroked home first time under Samir Handanovic.
Ospina kept a powerful Inter side at bay with some super goalkeeping to make up for his early blunder, the Colombian making two excellent stops from Eriksen in five minutes towards the end.
The second, in the 82nd minute, came after a flowing move in which substitute Alexis Sanchez found Eriksen with a lovely backheeled pass, laying on the Dane for a golden chance to take the tie to penalties.
However there was another bum note for Ospina after his best game for Napoli, as his late booking for time wasting means he will miss the final.
© 2020 AFP