Rarely has a player's emergence at the highest level been as sudden and spectacular as that of Stephan El Shaarawy. Until recently considered just another talent in a new wave of bright Italian youngsters, El Shaarawy has, in a matter of months, imposed himself as a vital player for both AC Milan and Italy.
A versatile attacking option, El Shaarawy likes to operate as a left-sided forward but can also play through the middle, behind the main striker, or alongside a strike partner. His bursts of pace and pin-point crossing allow him to wreak havoc on the flanks, while his eye for goal and powerful shot make him equally dangerous in central areas.
El Shaarawy, nicknamed 'Little Pharaoh' for his Egyptian heritage, took his first steps as a footballer with Legino, a small club from his hometown of Savona, before joining Genoa's youth academy while still very young. On 21 December 2008, aged 16 years, one month and 24 days, he made his Serie A debut against Chievo, after which he continued to hone his skills and helped Genoa's youth side win a title. He then spent the 2010/11 season on loan at Padova, where he was voted Serie B's player of the year.
He then moved to AC Milan and made 22 appearances on the left wing in his first season, but came in for criticism from fellow forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic. El Shaarawy, however, did not take it to heart, using it instead as an opportunity to learn from his more experienced team-mate.
That maturity was duly rewarded at the start of the 2012/13 season. Faced with rebuilding the Milan squad after the departure of several senior players, including Ibrahimovic, coach Massimiliano Allegri made a bold move and entrusted El Shaarawy with a leading role, despite the latter being just 20 years old.
Being promoted to the starting line-up did wonders for his confidence, and has allowed him to show another side to his talent. Now settled in his preferred position on the left side of Milan's attack, El Shaarawy is enjoying his new-found responsibility and continues to grow in stature, with the extra pressure eroding none of his youthful verve.
With El Shaarawy currently on 19 goals for the season, including 16 in Serie A, it would be safe to say that Allegri's gamble has paid off. "He is, along with Neymar, one of the best players in the world in his age group," said Milan's vice-president, Adriano Galliani, who recently extended the youngster's contract until 2018.
Although El Shaarawy cites Ronaldinho as his hero, his fierce commitment, eagerness to learn and simple approach makes his style more akin to that of Andriy Schevchenko. His personality has made him a popular member of the Milan dressing room, while his biggest fear is not failure, but rather falling victim to overconfidence.
His impressive rise did not go unnoticed by Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, who followed his 46 youth-level appearances intently. Prandelli eventually handed El Shaarawy his senior international debut on 15 August 2012 in Italy's 2-1 friendly defeat by England. Then, on 14 November, El Shaarawy lined up alongside Mario Balotelli in a 2-1 defeat by France, a game that would mark the start of a promising partnership between the pair.
El Shaarawy scored his first international goal in that match, but of far more interest to Prandelli was the youngster's encouraging link-up with Balotelli, which has since continued at club level. The pair have a combined age of 41, and are the perfect embodiment of the Italian national team's new, more youthful look.