The most exciting player in Italy right now is a Georgian. Serie A may be a league which has become accustomed to losing its biggest stars each summer, but it looks like it has found a new one in Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
The 21-year-old winger has been the standout player as Napoli have made an unbeaten start to the new season, and on Wednesday he will make his Champions League debut as Luciano Spalletti’s side host Liverpool. With four goals in five games already, including the winner away to Lazio last weekend, Jurgen Klopp’s men know they will have their work cut out stopping him.
‘Kvaradona’ they call him in Naples, and you should understand that that’s pretty high praise in a city where Diego is King and where walls, metro stations and now the football stadium all pay homage to the Argentine’s genius.
Kvaratskhelia offered his own tribute to Maradona by choosing Opus’ Live is Life as his initiation song at Napoli. Liverpool fans may recognise the tune - it has been sung towards Klopp at Anfield - but in Naples it will forever be associated with the most famous warm-up in football history, Maradona’s rhythmic, showboating masterpiece at the Stadio San Paolo before the UEFA Cup semi-final against Bayern Munich in 1989.
“Obviously I like the nickname,” Kvaratskhelia has said. “I can’t come close to Maradona, but I will give everything to become a big player for this club.”
So far, so good, in that respect. Napoli may have headed into this season uncertain following the departures of captain Lorenzo Insigne, vice-captain Kalidou Koulibaly and Dries Mertens, the club’s record goalscorer, but Kvaratskhelia’s instant impact, the retention of Victor Osimhen despite interest from the likes of Manchester United, and the arrivals of Giacomo Raspadori, Giovanni Simeone and Tanguy Ndombele mean that optimism has returned swiftly. After five games, I Partenopei sit second in the table, behind only Atalanta, and have scored 12 times, more than any other side in the division.
Kvaratskhelia has been responsible for a third of those goals, scoring a back-post header (as well as registering an assist for one-time Liverpool target Piotr Zielinski) in a 5-2 win at Verona on the opening weekend before marking his home debut with a superbly-taken brace in the 4-0 thrashing of Monza a week later.Getty
“Is there anything this boy can’t do?” wondered the commentator after Kvaratskhelia had first curled in a 25-yarder which drew comparisons with Insigne, before dancing past a bewildered defender to add another with his left foot soon after. “Where on earth has he come from?!”
The answer is Dinamo Batumi, the current champions of Georgia. Kvaratskhelia moved there in March from Rubin Kazan, after Fifa ruled that foreign players in Russia were free to break their contracts after the invasion of Ukraine.
Napoli paid €10million (£8.6m/$10m) to bring him to Italy, and the deal already looks to be a feather in the cap for Cristiano Giuntoli, the club’s sporting director. On Saturday at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Kvaratskhelia made his biggest contribution yet, arriving into the box to sweep home Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s cross and secure a 2-1 win against a Lazio side that had also made an unbeaten start to the campaign to that point.getty
Spalletti, who played a big role in Mohamed Salah's development while manager of Roma, has certainly been encouraged by what he has seen from the tricky, two-footed wideman, but sounded a note of caution when discussing Kvaratskhelia’s impressive start after the Monza victory.
“He still has too much pressure on him,” he said. “As soon as he frees himself from that pressure, he will show people what a player he is.”
Kvaratskhelia, predictably, has been labelled ‘The Georgian Messi’ in his homeland, but he grew up idolising the other great forward of the modern era, Cristiano Ronaldo. He wears the No.77 shirt at Napoli in tribute, but only because the No.7 is occupied by another impressive young talent from Eastern Europe, the North Macedonia international midfielder Elif Elmas.
Georgia has produced a few top-level players over the years. Kakha Kaladze enjoyed success in Italy with AC Milan, Shota Arveladze won titles with Ajax and Rangers, while Premier League fans will remember the mercurial talents of Giorgi Kinkladze and Temuri Ketsbaia.
The production line had dried up in the past decade, however. Kvaratskhelia’s emergence threatens to change that. He already has eight goals in 17 caps for his country, and has been named Georgian Footballer of the Year two years in a row - a feat even the brilliant Kinkladze never managed.
Napoli fans love him already. He won’t reach the heights Maradona reached with the club - nobody ever could, let’s face it - but if his first few weeks are anything to go by, it’s going to be fun watching him try.
Liverpool, you’ve been warned. Kvaradona has already taken Serie A by storm; now he's got his eye on the Champions League.