Dazzling Napoli paid the perfect tribute to Diego Maradona on Sunday by thumping Lazio 4-0 to move three points clear at the top of Serie A.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino was among those present in Naples as the southern Italian city honoured one of its adopted sons, who led Napoli to their only two league titles and the 1989 UEFA Cup and died a year ago on Thursday.
Fans chanted Maradona’s name as a statue, which depicts their idol in full flight atop the number 10, was carried around the pitch.
A tribute from Pele was shown on the stadium’s big screens, while players came out for their pre-match warm-up to the sound of “Life Is Life” by Opus, the song to which Maradona does keepie-uppies in one of the most beloved pieces of footage of the Argentine in his pomp.
Inspired by the emotional ceremony, Napoli took full advantage of AC Milan crashing to a 3-1 home defeat against Sassuolo to go it alone at the summit with an at times electrifying performance.
“We put in one of our best performances, now the important thing is to always play like that, because you need to repeat those kinds of displays. The way we played today was perfect,” Dries Mertens told DAZN, after scoring a superb double.
Wearing shirts bearing Maradona’s face, Luciano Spalletti’s table toppers came out like a team possessed and blew Lazio away with three fantastic first-half goals.
Mertens sweeps Lazio aside
In almost perfect harmony with the occasion it was another adopted Neapolitan in Mertens who led the charge, the Belgian nicknamed ‘Ciro’ scoring a brilliant brace of which Maradona himself would have been proud.
Piotr Zielinski got the ball rolling in the seventh minute by almost ripping a hole in the net with his rocket opener, and just three minutes later Mertens took the roof off the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona when he ended a brilliant move by dumping Patric on the deck with a feint and slotting home a cool finish.
After Luis Alberto and then Francesco Acerbi went close for Lazio in the space of a minute, Mertens effectively sealed the win with more than an hour to play with another wonderful goal, clipping a first-time strike that sailed over a despairing Pepe Reina and increased his club-record goal tally to 139.
Fabian Ruiz then capped a perfect night when he lashed home the fourth from distance.
The 34-year-old’s three class strikes in his last two Serie A matches will also give Spalletti hope that he can get by without star striker Victor Osimhen, out for up to three months with facial fractures.
“These are goals which give me a great deal of satisfaction . . . Victor gets injured and that’s the moment when you need to be ready,” added Mertens.
Sassuolo’s San Siro success
Sassuolo emerged worthy winners at the San Siro earlier on Sunday after recovering from Alessio Romagnoli’s 21st-minute header through a superb Gianluca Scamacca strike, Simon Kjaer’s own goal and a solo effort from Domenico Berardi.
Milan also finished with 10 men after Romagnoli completed a miserable afternoon by being shown a straight red card for taking out Gregoire Defrel.
Their first home league defeat of the season after the previous weekend’s 4-3 loss at Fiorentina meant that city rivals Inter Milan are now only a point behind them in third, with Atalanta a further three back after beating Juventus in Turin on Sunday.
“It’s clear if you concede seven goals in two games something’s not working,” said Milan coach Stefano Pioli, who on Friday signed an extension to his Milan contract until June 2023 with an option for another year.
Roma are three points behind Atalanta in fifth after Tammy Abraham’s 32nd-minute strike gave them a 1-0 win over 13th-placed Torino. Earlier Andriy Shevchenko earned his first point as Genoa coach with a largely uneventful goalless draw at Udinese.
On Wednesday, his team host Milan, where the former Ukraine striker scored 175 goals and won one Serie A title and the 2003 Champions League.