HE may never have been a Napoli supporter as such when he was a boy growing up in Italy, but seeing Diego Maradona in action for Gli Azzurri still had a profound effect on Marco Negri.

“Maradona was one of the reasons that I started to play football,” said the former Rangers striker yesterday.

“I was very young when he joined Napoli, but I would watch him playing for them on TV. He was very, very special and inspired me and a lot of other kids as well.

“When I would play on the street with my friends I would pretend that I was Maradona. I would dream of being as great as him one day. But there was no way that was ever going to happen. He was just too good.

“Sadly, I never got the chance to play against him. But I did get to see him in the flesh. I came through the youth development system at Udinese. I was in their stadium when Maradona played for Napoli and Zico played for Udinese. That was amazing.”

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For Negri, and so many others of his generation, there has never been, and never will be, anyone to touch El Diego.

Yet, he can fully understand why Khvicha Kvaratskhelia has been dubbed Kvaradona by Napoli supporters and can appreciate why many people believe the Georgian is capable of scaling the same heights in the global game as the Argentinian in future. 

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The 21-year-old, a €13.5m signing from Dinamo Batumi in his homeland back in July, has scored no fewer than seven goals in 15 appearances for Luciano Spalletti’s exciting young side in the 2022/23 campaign.

He has helped them to go undefeated in Serie A and move three points clear of defending champions AC Milan at the top of the table as well as win their first four Champions League group games.

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James Tavernier and his team mates will need to make nullifying the considerable threat posed by the form footballer in the Italian game a priority when they play their fifth Group A match at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona tomorrow evening.

Negri made exactly the same sort of instant impression when he joined Rangers in a £3.5m transfer from Perugia back in 1997; he netted on no fewer than 23 occasions in his opening 10 outings and had taken his tally to 33 by the turn of the year.

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After that, he was plagued by injuries and off-field problems.

But the 51-year-old, who has worked as a forward coach since retiring from playing, is confident that Kvaratskhelia can maintain his current hot streak of form, get even better and realise his enormous potential. 

“He is a superb player,” he said. “In fact, he is a monster. He is a young player, but he has made such an impact. He has very strong legs, he can run, he can shoot. He has scored seven goals and has seven assists already. He is very, very special. He is already a star in Italian football.

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“There are only a few players in world football who make the opposition manager change his tactics to deal with him. He is one of them. As I say, he is still very young and so he is very coachable. He can improve. He is in the right place just now because Spalletti is renowned for improving younger players.

“He is a jewel, a little treasure. He is special just now. In the future? I don’t know. He is not a superstar just now. But he is certainly a rising star. If he continues to develop and improve and acquit himself so well in the Champions League then who knows what he can do in the game?”

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Negri has some bad news for Giovanni van Bronckhorst ahead of his side’s rematch with opponents who, after centre half James Sands had been sent off in the second-half, eased to a 3-0 win at Ibrox last month.

He warned that Kvaratskhelia is not the only exceptional attacker who Spalletti has at his disposal and urged the manager of his former club to adopt a far defensive gameplan in their midweek encounter.

“Napoli right now are on fire,” he said. “They are playing fantastic football which is very nice to watch. They are creating a lot of chances and scoring a lot of goals.

“Up front they have a lot of quality. On the left they have Kvaratskhelia and on the right they have Lozano (Mexican internationalist Hirving). But they have a lot of different players who can play through the middle. 

“Osimhen (Nigerian striker Victor) is very good when there are spaces to exploit, Raspadori (Italian cap Giacomo) is extremely technical, Simeone (Argentinian forward Giovanni) just scores goals. So they can change a game in a game.”

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Negri added: “They are the best team in Italy when it comes to building the game from the keeper because they have such talent in their midfield; they can move, they can run, they can pass the ball.

“If a team presses Napoli very high up the park it can be a problem for them because they just play the ball to the feet of the three guys they have up front and when it becomes a one-against-one situation then the team has a serious problem.

“I think Rangers should approach the game in exactly the same way as they approached their away games in the Europa League last season. Their defence, midfield and striker must be closer together. Then they can exploit any space which open up on the counter by getting the ball to the feet of Ryan Kent or Alfredo Morelos.”

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