Dries Mertens is entering the final months of his current Napoli contract, which expires in June, and he may not choose to extend his stay at the Stadio San Paolo.
The 32-year-old Belgian forward has been nothing short of a revelation since swapping PSV Eindhoven for southern Italy back in 2013.
He’s gone from being on the wings to becoming one of Europe’s best performing ‘false nines’ – a switch that has seen him accelerate to 118 goals for the club.
Such an incredible transformation earned Mertens widespread plaudits, including from club legend Diego Maradona, but enjoying the sweet life may be coming to an end.
Now entering his twilight years, there’s likely to be one big contract left on the table, a chance to play in Europe’s most demanding leagues or experience life outside the continent.
Below are some of the contenders to become his next destination, with a couple of Squawka suggestions thrown into the mix.
It’s not an itch that every footballer wants to scratch, but playing in the Premier League must prey on Mertens’ mind, especially with a number of his compatriots successfully plying their trade there. He would certainly be an asset for any ‘top six’ club due to his tactical versatility – being capable of leading the line or drifting from out wide – so it comes as no surprise to see that Chelsea are 8/1* to sign Mertens before February 1st 2020.
Frank Lampard isn’t exactly short on options, but there’s a feeling behind Tammy Abraham the barrel is somewhat empty. Michy Batshuayi and Oliver Giroud, are more than good enough but possessing someone of Mertens’ quality could inject a different dimension to Chelsea’s game if he’s fielded through the middle. Plus, there’s also a previous relationship with deep-lying midfielder Jorginho.
Realistic: MLS or CSL
Mertens turns 33 in May, which is not old by any stretch, especially for these modern athletes. However, there’s a known risk when assimilating to the faster pace of the Premier League, which can be overwhelming even for a youngster. That’s not to say he won’t be able to, but there’s an option of spending his twilight years outside Europe, where the pay is good and the football is played at a reasonable level.
One club recently associated with the Belgian is Montreal Impact, now managed by his former national team assistant coach Thierry Henry, whom Mertens forged a strong rapport with. The days of Major League Soccer (MLS) being looked down upon as a retirement league are long gone. Yes, several former big names presently call it home, but that doesn’t mean the level hasn’t continually risen. He’d be a solid get for the Canadian outfit who’ll be looking to kick on under new management.
Another option and one Mertens has previously discussed is heading to China, whose top division has attracted not just those in their early 30s, but players many would have deemed to be in their peak years, a couple of his ex-teammates are currently Chinese Super League (CSL) players and they may have put in a good word (pay isn’t bad, according to reports). William Hill currently price Mertens’ chances of travelling east at 8/1.
However, such an exodus from the old continent like before is expected to be curtailed after officials imposed a new salary cap, which understandably could deter the likes of Mertens as it was the league’s biggest selling point to attract prospective employees. Given his past statement of never wanting to move there, and Montreal being more culturally close, he’s more likely to head Stateside.
Squawka suggests: MLS
Wildcard: Inter or Juventus
There’s always the chance of Mertens staying put and even if he doesn’t pen a new Napoli deal, it doesn’t mean he’ll say goodbye to Italian football. Moves between rivals (even the staunchest) have been commonplace down the years. Inter Milan, in particular, are no strangers to such phenomenon.
Antonio Conte, who’s building the Nerazzurri in his image, could already be considering Lautaro Martínez’s replacement as the Argentine forward – who has forged a formidable strike partnership with Romelu Lukaku – is being linked away. Even if he remains for another season, Mertens is not bad to have around given his already touched upon multifunctionality.
What about the club Inter and Napoli both share an intense dislike of? Juventus, again known to sign rival players, could appeal to Mertens, especially given who’s in charge. The Old Lady are 9/1 to secure his signature during the January transfer window and Inter Milan are available at 4/1. To say Maurizio Sarri had a profound effect on his career is an understatement. It was Sarri, when coaching Napoli, that converted him into a deep-lying forward (as a reaction to Arkadiusz Milik’s injury) and he’s never looked back since.
A reunification is always a possibility but given his newfound cult-like status in Naples, would Mertens want to anger those who sing his name or put career before romance like many before him? With no championship or European medal, linking up with his former mentor in Turin may very well present a last chance to put that right.
Squawka suggests: Juventus