Rafa Benitez handed a start to Dries Mertens tonight, and the Belgian international responded to his manager's faith in a big way, scoring two huge goals to help life Napoli over Sparta Prague to a key 3-1 win.
That Mertens started was not an insignificant thing; he was frequently used as a super-sub last season, and had started just one of Napoli's four competitive matches to start the season. Benitez has so far preferred to use Lorenzo Insigne, seemingly trying to force Naples' native son to regain his shattered confidence. That hasn't exactly gone to plan so far, so the more effective Mertens was given the nod in a must-win matchup for Napoli.
After two excellent second-half goals, it looks like the decision worked out rather nicely.
Just after the start of the half, Mertens pulled off a note-perfect "ghost run", sitting off the shoulder of a defender and shadowing him through the box while he's focused on the man with the ball. In this case, that was Gonzalo Higuain, who drove in to the right side of Sparta's box almost unopposed, picked his head up, saw Mertens, and centered the ball to the near post for Mertens to tap in after a little burst of pace separated him from the defender who didn't even know he was there.
Later on, after his own failed "hand of god" moment, Mertens again made noise in the box. With the ball at his feet, he made a drive for the outer edge of the six yard box... until two defenders committed to cutting off his path, then a stepover and eye-opening cutback left the two Sparta defenders literally falling over themselves and gave Mertens all the space he needed to hammer the ball home.
Both goals were finely worked and well-taken, but the second was worthy of highlight reels for Mertens' run and cutback. Ending the day with a brace was a well-deserved result for the Belgian, who put in an incredible shift on the day, creating constant danger in attack and doing a solid job pressing and tracking in defense. Mertens was an incredibly valuable part of today's win, and not just for the two goals he scored, or the cheeky fast free kick he took in the first half that lead to the penalty and Napoli's equalizer. His performance as a whole was top-shelf stuff, and hopefully should earn Mertens plenty more starts in the near future.