Dries Mertens on Naples, Barcelona and breaking records

Napoli’s all-time top scorer talks to UEFA.com ahead of the last-16 decider against Barcelona.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring in the last-16 first leg against Barcelona
Dries Mertens celebrates scoring in the last-16 first leg against Barcelona

Napoli's leading marksman ever reflects on life in Naples, breaking records, the season so far and the round of 16 second leg against Barcelona.

Napoli's season so far


Life in Naples
 

Watch every Napoli Champions League goal so far this season
Watch every Napoli Champions League goal so far this season

UEFA.com: You moved from [PSV] Eindhoven to Naples in 2013; was that a culture shock? What were your first impressions of southern Italy?

Dries Mertens: Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing in the Champions League. You have to feel at home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how [people] live, and that's something that I did. That makes it so much easier.

Obviously you've got a very strict diet; have you been able to sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Football is the first thing that you have to do. It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. But at the end [of the day], you just try to enjoy life because it's important.

What's your relationship like with Napoli's supporters?

The people breathe football. It's not only from young people to 40-year-olds, it's also the grandmothers, the young children – it's crazy! I think this is something special about Italy; waking up, taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. They call me 'Ciro', it's a typical name from Napoli, and I think that is because I started to live like them. I go into the city a lot, I love the food, I love the sea, I love all the islands here.

Management at Napoli

Dries Mertens alongside former coach Maurizio Sarri
Dries Mertens alongside former coach Maurizio SarriAFP via Getty Images

You've played under a number of coaches at Napoli. Maurizio Sarri is credited with changing your position, moving you into a central role. Was changing position something that you had already considered?

In the first season with Sarri I only played six games as a starter. So I was always mad, [but he would say:] 'You are so important for me, for the team, and don't worry, you'll have your chances.' One day he put me as a striker and I'm very happy [he did] because it changed my life. He just put me there and said: 'I'm sure you're going to do it well.'

Gennaro Gattuso came into the coach's job late last year. How have things been under him?

He's a really good coach. I think he's the perfect coach at this moment for Napoli because he's also giving a lot of opportunities to the young players, and I think he could be a really good coach for the future. He's won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win. That was something that the team was missing. You felt it also with [Carlo] Ancelotti because he was a coach who won a lot, and he was willing to put that in the minds of the players and to change that mentality.

The 2019/20 season so far

Let's talk about Napoli's Champions League campaign this year.

Highlights: Napoli 1-1 Barcelona
Highlights: Napoli 1-1 Barcelona

This year is actually going well. I think I've scored six goals already, so I'm very happy. The only [negative] thing is that we conceded against Barcelona [in the last-16 first leg]. We know it's going to be a very difficult game, but if you prepare for it, then you never know what can happen. Of course, if you win 1-0 [at home], it's another game there. But in the end, they made it 1-1 and now we have to take this result and play in Barcelona.

Napoli face Barcelona at Camp Nou in the round of 16 second leg – what do you expect from the match? What will be the key to victory?

At home they play incredible football, and it's going to be difficult, but we know that. It's not going to be easy but we're feeling confident. The key is that we have to score because if we don’t score, we will be out. If you prepare for it, then maybe you never know what can happen.

You beat the holders Liverpool on Matchday 1 – what do you remember from that game and the second leg at Anfield?

I think we played very well in [the first leg]. I remember that Liverpool were like a machine. They ran I don't know how many kilometres. We checked the data and it was incredible; they were running for three teams. We were very proud because playing against Liverpool at this moment is difficult, and then winning after they hadn't lost for so long.

Matchday 1 highlights: Napoli 2-0 Liverpool
Matchday 1 highlights: Napoli 2-0 Liverpool

Also there, we played very well. They didn't lose there for a year, and I scored [to make it 1-0] which is always a nice feeling. In the end they made it 1-1 – but I think we played a really good game.

Breaking records

With 125 goals so far, you've broken both Diego Maradona (117) and Marek Hamšik's (121) goalscoring records for Napoli.

I played with Hamšik – I was still providing a lot of assists to him and he was scoring – so I was not looking at it like "I'm going to break this record". But then it was getting closer and you start to be like: "OK, I'm getting closer to Maradona, I'm getting closer to Hamšik." And then when it comes, it's incredible because I never came here to be the all-time top scorer of this club.