15th February 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Napoli will take on Real Madrid in the Champions League last-16 this week, and, in Dries Mertens, they have unearthed an unlikely hero who could fire them to victory over the European champions.

The diminutive Belgian has been in superlative form this season, but he probably wouldn't even be starting against Los Blancos were it not for the fact that circumstance robbed the Italian side of two top class strikers over the summer.

Replacing a player of Gonzalo Higuain's calibre is never easy. Especially after the Argentinian striker set a new Serie A record with his 36 goals last season.

But that's the task Napoli were faced with last summer, and, almost by accident, they found their new star in the last place they thought to look: right under their nose.

Napoli were powerless to stop Higuain from sealing his record-breaking €90million move to champions Juventus last July as the player's contract contained a release clause which the Bianconeri triggered with their monumental bid.

The Partenopei would have held onto their star man, regardless on the money on offer, if they were able to. But Higuain wanted to go and there was nothing they could do to convince him otherwise.

With money to spend, a list of potential targets was drawn up. Ajax's Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik was brought in for €35 million and started brightly with seven goals from his first nine appearances, including a brace on his debut in a 4-2 victory over AC Milan.

But the 22-year-old marksmen went down injured while playing an international friendly for Poland against Denmark in October. The prognosis was bad: a torn anterior cruciate ligament which would keep him out of action for several months he is only just now nearing a full recovery.

With Italian forward Manolo Gabbiadini struggling for form and, in fairness to the player, ill-suited to manager Maurizio Sarri's system he has since moved to Southampton and is making a splash in the Premier League it was decided that Dries Mertens, a Belgian winger who has spent most of his time at the Stadio San Paolo as a back-up player, would be given a chance.

Mertens was signed from PSV Eindhoven for €9.5million in the summer of 2013. Largely seen as an effective yet limited deputy to Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon in the wide attacking positions in Sarri's 4-3-3, there seemed little hope of the 29-year-old asserting himself as a regular starter for the Serie A side.

A full international for Belgium with 55 caps, Mertens occupied a similar role within the Red Devils' set-up, starting only if he could be crowbarred into the side along with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, who were seen as two of the first names on the teamsheet.

Whether it was a moment of inspiration from Sarri, or the fact that Gabbiadini's form and Milik's injury left him with little choice, Mertens was trialled at centre-forward in a 3-2 loss to Besiktas in the Champions League in October.

Despite the defeat on home soil, Mertens impressed leading the line, and bagged himself a goal on his way to being named man of the match.

He was moved back out to the wing for the following fixture a 2-1 Serie A win over Crotone. But with Gabbiadini again failing to impress, Mertens was given another shot up front against Empoli three days later, scoring and being named man of the match in a 2-0 win.

He has been trusted to play at the focal point of Sarri's attack ever since, and enjoyed a particularly productive spell in December when he netted nine goals in four games, including a spectacular four-goal haul against Torino.

In that match against Il Toro, Mertens' newfound self-belief was evident as he scored a delightful chip from a narrow angle, elegantly lofting the ball over Joe Hart's head from a position in which most players would have been more concerned with picking out a cross for a team-mate.

Mertens has been named man of the match in each of his last three outings for Napoli, and even plundered another hat-trick in the 7-1 thumping of Bologna of 4 February.

Of the 16 goals that the Belgian has registered this term, 14 have been scored since his switch to the No.9 position.

His appreciation of his team-mates, a hangover from his years as a winger, has also seen him provide six assists. Unlike most centre-forwards, Mertens will pass to a better-placed colleague, forgoing his own scoring hopes, without a second thought.

With hindsight, the attributes that brought Mertens success as a winger tremendous pace, the ability to time runs in behind the opposition's defence and accurate finishing have always been suited to a more central role; it's almost surprising that he hadn't transitioned into becoming a striker sooner.

Napoli recently rewarded the former Utrecht winger with a new contract, recognising his rise from a valuable but under-used squad member into a dynamic and devastating goal-scorer.

Perhaps fearing losing another star striker at the end of the season, the Partenopei have inserted a release clause into his new deal that will ensure that they are well compensated should one of Europe's established elite look to snap up the new hero of the San Paolo.

But there is reason to believe that Napoli needn't be so concerned about losing Mertens. Chiefly because, turning 30 in May, any potential suitor would likely view the Leuven-born forward as being too old to fork out the €35 million that it would take to acquire the player.

Granted, Juventus paid almost three times that amount for Higuain last summer, who, at the time, was only a year younger than Mertens is now. But the circumstances surrounding that deal were different: no other side was willing to bid such a high figure for the Argentinian, and the Bianconeri were only doing so in order to secure a fan-appeasing marquee signing with Paul Pogba set to depart for Manchester United.

It is highly unlikely that a similar situation would arise to steal Mertens away from Napoli this summer, so Sarri can continue to plan ahead with his newest hotshot in his ranks.

Napoli are set to travel to the Bernabeu this week, and with Mertens at the peak of his powers, you wouldn't back against them causing an upset.