Khvicha Kvaratskhelia channels Maradona as Napoli eyes Champions League quarterfinals

This past weekend, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia lived up to comparisons with icon Diego Maradona with a wonder goal that has Napoli on a high ahead of its Champions League showdown against Eintracht Frankfurt.

The Georgian winger has become one of European soccer's most exciting players after an incredible first season in Naples, during which he has emerged as the most preternaturally gifted Napoli player since Maradona played for the Southern Italy club in the 1980s. Kvaratskhelia is set to lead Napoli to the quarterfinals of Europe's top club competition for the first time in the team's history, 13 goals and as many assists in all competitions making him the star -- alongside Victor Osimhen -- of a truly brilliant team.

Kvaratskhelia's outrageous goal that broke the deadlock in Napoli's 2-0 win over Atalanta on Saturday was the perfect example of the 22-year-old's close control and precision play that has been decisive countless times this season. Having been defeated at home by Lazio the week before, there was some fear after the goalless first half that a spring collapse typical of manager Luciano Spalletti's teams was on the cards, but then 'Kvaradona' sprinkled his star dust.

After collecting a pass from Osimhen in a Napoli counterattack, Kvaratskhelia charged at the Atalanta defense with no backup. His first feint sent Rafael Toloi spinning and Giorgio Scalvini slide-tackling thin air, but having already fooled four defenders, he then cut back inside the befuddled Toloi before smashing home at the near post of the goal. By the time he took his shot, Kvaratskhelia was alone in the penalty area with seven Atalanta players powerless to stop the goal that sent Napoli towards a win that all but sealed the club's first Scudetto since 1990.

"He scored a goal worthy of Maradona, this time you really can say it, looking at the quality of control in such a tight space. ... When he runs at you, he's basically unmarkable," Spalletti told reporters after the match.

Deep run

Italy's runaway league leader faces Eintracht with a 2-0 lead to defend following a dominant first-leg display in Germany and nothing but positive vibes surrounding the team. An incredible 18 points clear at the top of Serie A, Spalletti's entertaining team is eyeing a deep run in Europe and has the perfect opportunity to make the quarterfinals.

Spalletti said after the first leg that Napoli's biggest enemy was "to think it is already done," but the stars could hardly have aligned better for his team. He has basically his entire squad available for Wednesday's match after starting goalkeeper Alex Meret and key center back Kim Min-jae's knocks suffered before and during Saturday's win turned out to not be serious injuries.

Meanwhile Eintracht is without its star striker Randal Kolo Muani, who is suspended after receiving a red card in the first leg. Kolo Muani has scored eight goals in 11 matches in all competitions since the turn of the year. Eintracht also won't have its usual army of away fans in Naples after the city's prefecture banned people residing in Frankfurt from buying tickets on Sunday.

On Saturday, an initial ban on anyone in Germany buying tickets, imposed on Friday by the Italian interior ministry following first leg trouble, had been overturned following an appeal from Eintracht. The latest decision to limit ticket sales as a public safety measure has infuriated Eintracht, whose board member Philipp Reschke said in a statement that the club would not take up any of its allocation.  Eintracht is appealing the decision despite not taking the 2,700 places available, but "in view of the timing, [it's] more about the principle for us and how it affects future decisions."

"It is a well-known fact that two-thirds of our fans are from outside the Rhine-Main region and do not come from Frankfurt," he said. "There would be countless possible ways of actually circumventing this decree and getting parts of our fan-base into the stadium. ... We are not going to divide ourselves up into postcode areas."


© Agence France-Presse

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