Interview

“We go there with confidence”

It’s already been a season to remember for Napoli striker Dries Mertens. His goal against Barcelona earned a 1-1 draw in the home leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie and drew him level with Marek Hamšik as the club’s all-time leading scorer on 121 goals. He then broke the record with the strike that propelled Napoli to the Coppa Italia final at the expense of Inter Milan. Having won the Coppa Italia – beating Juventus on penalties in the final – Napoli now turn their attention once again to Barça, and Mertens is quietly confident his side will still be playing deep into August. “We know it’s going to be a very difficult game, but if you know it, if you prepare for it, then you never know what can happen,” he says.

Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

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Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

Interview

“We go there with confidence”

It’s already been a season to remember for Napoli striker Dries Mertens. His goal against Barcelona earned a 1-1 draw in the home leg of the Champions League round of 16 tie and drew him level with Marek Hamšik as the club’s all-time leading scorer on 121 goals. He then broke the record with the strike that propelled Napoli to the Coppa Italia final at the expense of Inter Milan. Having won the Coppa Italia – beating Juventus on penalties in the final – Napoli now turn their attention once again to Barça, and Mertens is quietly confident his side will still be playing deep into August. “We know it’s going to be a very difficult game, but if you know it, if you prepare for it, then you never know what can happen,” he says.

Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

Penalty Pedigree

Etiam erat velit scelerisque in dictum non. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at. Scelerisque felis imperdiet proin fermentum leo. Nibh tortor id aliquet lectus proin nibh nisl. Nulla at volutpat diam ut venenatis. At urna condimentum mattis pellentesque id nibh tortor id aliquet. Leo a diam sollicitudin tempor id eu nisl nunc mi. Dui vivamus arcu felis bibendum ut. Pharetra convallis posuere morbi leo urna molestie. Adipiscing at in tellus integer feugiat scelerisque. In arcu cursus euismod quis. Dictum non consectetur a erat nam at lectus urna duis. Facilisi nullam vehicula ipsum a arcu cursus. At tempor commodo ullamcorper a lacus vestibulum sed arcu non. Ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipiscing elit pellentesque habitant. Vitae sapien pellentesque habitant morbi tristique senectus. Eget nullam non nisi est sit amet facilisis. Ipsum consequat nisl vel pretium lectus quam. Elit sed vulputate mi sit amet mauris commodo quis. Pretium fusce id velit ut tortor pretium viverra suspendisse potenti.

Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

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Looking ahead to the second leg in Barcelona, could it make a difference that the game will be played behind closed doors? 

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We will find out. But we know it’s difficult, we know it’s a great team. For sure, at home they play incredible football. We go there with confidence, and we will see. You just have to enjoy it. I’d prefer that it were with some tifosi, with some supporters, but hey, I’m already happy that football continues and we can play the games. That’s the most important thing. 

In the first leg you equalled the Marek Hamšik’s club record 121 goals. How special was it to do that in a home game, at San Paolo, against one of the best teams in the world?

It’s always special to play [against] these big teams. People think that we’re used to doing this, we’re used to the pressure and to the power of the games. Playing these games is something special. When you score and you equal the all-time scorer at Napoli, it’s something special, for sure. But when you’re in the game, you want to win, and you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about the team. Unfortunately, I got injured, because I think [Sergio] Busquets fouled me, and I had to be substituted. I was so disappointed to go out of the game. It was 1-0, and I wanted to stay on the pitch because I was feeling that we could do something special. OK, we finished 1-1, but I still feel that we can do something special. 

What were your first impressions of Napoli when you arrived at the club in 2013? Was it a culture shock?

Yes, definitely. It was a big step to come here – a big club playing Champions League. For me it was very important and you never know how it’s going to be. Luckily for me it turned out really great. I tell young players now that, when you change clubs, you have to feel [at] home, you have to adapt, you have to learn the language, you have to look at how they live. That's something I did and I think that they appreciate it. That makes it so much easier. I tried to see the city, the club, learn everything about them, and that was my strength.

The city's unique, isn't it? Superstitious, great food, fantastic weather … Have you been able to really sample and experience the Neapolitan way of life?

Yes! It's not easy to be on a diet when you play for Napoli – the food is really good. You just try to enjoy life, but football is the first thing that you have to do.

And the fans? What are they like?

The fans are crazy. 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 Italy is leading about football, breathing football… Waking up and taking the coffee in the morning and talking only about football. And I think this is something special about Italy.

Dries Mertens celebrates scoring against Barcelona

Given that, what does it mean to play for a club like Napoli?

The club is historic. Having Maradona here, he's still the story, and I think that until we win the Scudetto, he's going to stay the story. Let's hope one day there will be another story, but it’s a nice club. In Italy, they are crazy about football but the south is something special.

What sort of impact did Maurizio Sarri make on you when he was Napoli coach, because he was the man who was given the credit for changing your position to a centre forward?

I always played on the left side but I was always going inside and trying to shoot from outside the penalty area. And then with some injuries, they were looking for a striker and he just put me there and said: “I'm sure you're going to do it well.” In the first season with Sarri, I only played six games as a starter, so I was always mad that he was looking at me like: "You're really good at starting on the bench, coming on and you change the game." I was like: "Come on man. I come in, I score. The next game I want to play." He said: "But you are so important, don't worry, you'll have your chances." And then one day, he put me as a striker and it changed my life.

What do Diego Maradona and Marek Hamšík mean to you?

I never looked at myself as a goalscorer, I was making assists more. The time that I was playing with Hamšik, I was still providing a lot of assists and he was scoring, so I was not looking at it like: “I’m going to break this record.” I wasn't thinking about it, 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 was never signing here to be the all-time top scorer of this club. Achieving this is something special. Beating Maradona, because of his story, and then beating Hamšik, who was [here for] 11 or 12 years, is special for me, for sure. When I got the record, they sent me messages, and it was special.

What sort of impact has Mr. Gennaro Gattuso had since he replaced Carlo Ancelotti as coach last December?

We played great games in the Champions League, so that, for sure, is also thanks to Ancelotti. Now we’re with a new coach – I love it when you say 'Mr. Gattuso' –and he's doing really well. He's a really good coach. He's the perfect coach, at this moment, for Napoli, because he’s also giving a lot of opportunities to the young guys, and he could be a really good coach for the future.

So what makes Gattuso special?

He won a lot of trophies as a player and he knows what it means to win, and that was something that the team was missing. You felt it already with 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. And when Gattuso came in, who's very hungry as a coach, who’s very willing to win everything and is doing everything to achieve his goal, that's very important.

Penalty Pedigree

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