ROME (AP) —
Khvicha Kvaratskhelia took all of 37 minutes into his Serie A debut back in August to score his first goal for Napoli.
And not much longer to earn the nickname “Kvaradona” for his dribbling wizardry, which helped Napoli establish an eight-point lead over defending champion AC Milan before the 7 1/2-week break for the World Cup.
When the Italian league resumes Wednesday with a full slate of 10 games and Napoli visiting Inter Milan at the San Siro, the unbeaten Partenopei are likely going to need another big contribution from Kvaratskhelia to kick off a potentially decisive five-game stretch that also includes matches against Juventus and Roma, plus a regional derby with Salernitana.
If Napoli can emerge from that stretch with a comfortable lead intact, the southern club could be on its way to its first Serie A title since Diego Maradona — the player who Kvaratskhelia is nicknamed for — led the Partenopei to their only two Italian league titles in 1987 and 1990.
“The city lives for and loves soccer. Everyone understands soccer in Naples,” Kvaratskhelia told Serie A TV rights holder DAZN. “As a player, it’s motivating when the entire city is cheering for you and constantly transmits its love for you.”
When Kvaratskhelia burst onto the scene and virtually nobody in Naples could pronounce his name, he quickly earned several nicknames. But “Zizi,” “l‘Angelo Azzurro” and “Kvaravaggio” all paled in comparison to “Kvaradona.”
“They’re all very nice but when even a small part of Maradona’s name is associated with yours, it’s an honor and it creates a different emotion from the others,” Kvaratskhelia said. “‘Kvaradona’ is definitely my favorite.”
It will be a battle of nickames as Inter hopes to revive its “LuLa” attack featuring Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez, who are coming off starkly different performances at the World Cup.
While Lautaro helped Argentina to the title, Lukaku was ineffective and looked out of shape as Belgium failed to progress from the group stage.
Most of Napoli’s top players didn’t go to Qatar, with Kvaratskhelia’s Georgia and Victor Osimhen’s Nigeria each failing to qualify.
Milan resumes at Salernitana, which just signed Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa fresh off a solid performance at his fifth World Cup.
Milan could have a new goalkeeper, too, with the club in the process of signing Colombian player Devis Vasquez to replace the injured Mike Maignan.
Milan and Inter have a busy start to the year, as they will also meet in the Italian Super Cup in Saudi Arabia Jan. 18.
Juventus was rocked by scandal during the break when club’s board of directors resigned en masse and the Turin prosecutor’s office requested indictments for former president Andrea Agnelli and 10 other former board members as well as the club itself amid allegations of false accounting.
The scandal obscured the work done on the field before the break when Juventus won six straight matches without conceding a goal to surge up into the Champions League places after a dismal start to the season.
The Bianconeri will be expected to make it seven straight when they visit relegation-threatened Cremonese.
While Federico Chiesa and World Cup final standout Angel Di Maria are back for Juventus, Paul Pogba remains out injured and Dusan Vlahovic and Leonardo Bonucci are also out.
PABLO MARI’S RETURN
Spanish defender Pablo Marí is slated to be back on Monza’s bench after recovering from a knife attack at a shopping center in October sooner than expected.
Monza visits Fiorentina, which has Nordin Amrabat back from a breakout performance with Morocco in Qatar.
Andrew Dampf is at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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