Frankfurt to face Napoli's 'Kvaradona' in Champions League

BERLIN (AP) — Khvicha Kvaratskhelia would likely still be playing for Russian club Rubin Kazan if that country hadn’t launched an invasion of neighboring Ukraine a year ago.

Instead, the Georgian winger is one of Napoli’s best players as the Italian team visits Eintracht Frankfurt for the first leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League on Tuesday.

Last year, Kvaratskhelia was quietly adding to his reputation as one of the world’s best young players at Rubin, away from the intense scrutiny he might have gathered playing in one of Europe’s top leagues.

He hadn’t yet earned the nickname “Kvaradona” for the dribbling wizardry that has helped Napoli open a 15-point lead in Serie A this season.

Less than two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine last Feb. 24, FIFA said Russia-based foreign players could suspend their contracts and sign with other, non-Russian teams. Kvaratskhelia switched to Georgian team Dinamo Batumi for the rest of the season before joining Napoli for a reported fee of 10 million euros ($10.7 million) in the offseason.

It looks like a bargain.

Kvaratskhelia scored 37 minutes into his Serie A debut and already has more league goals, 10, then he managed in three seasons at Rubin. He also has two goals in the Champions League, where Napoli cruised through its group by winning its first five games against Liverpool, Rangers and Ajax.

Kvaratskhelia has scored in each of his last three Serie A appearances. He displayed all his skills and speed again on Friday when he won the ball in the center circle and took off toward goal, skipping over a challenge and then finding the space to shoot through a defender’s legs and inside the left post in a 2-0 win at Sassuolo.

Kvaratskhelia also created numerous chances for Victor Osimhen, another major worry for Frankfurt on Tuesday. The Nigeria forward scored to take his Serie A tally to 18 goals, nine alone in his last seven league games.

“Napoli’s forward line is very strong,” Frankfurt defender Tuta said after his team’s 2-0 win over Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga on Saturday. “We’ll have to keep working hard and improve every detail. We know they’re bringing a lot of quality.”

Previously known as the “Georgian Messi,” Kvaratskhelia has been dubbed “Kvaradona” for his impact at Napoli — a nod to Diego Maradona, who led the club to its only two Italian league titles in 1987 and 1990 — and also because his new Italian fans have problems pronouncing his name.

“When even a small part of Maradona’s name is associated with yours, it’s an honor,” said Kvaratskhelia, the subject last week of reported interest from Real Madrid.

Frankfurt has its own standout player in Randal Kolo Muani, who has seven goals in his last six games in all competitions and has emerged as one of the Bundesliga’s most exciting players this season.


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Ciarán Fahey, The Associated Press