After a turbulent summer of farewells, AC Milan look to be rediscovering their swagger thanks to the unbridled talent of a thrilling new driving force. Doubts spread at the San Siro earlier this year as Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and nearly a dozen stalwarts, including Gennaro Gattuso, waved goodbye, but the spectacular emergence of Stephan El Shaarawy has sparked a fresh sense of optimism.
Much of the credit for that must go to coach Massimiliano Allegri, who has entrusted the 20-year-old with a huge amount of responsibility. It looked to be a risky gamble at the start of the season, but 15 goals later – including 13 in Serie A – and Allegri is undoubtedly reaping the rewards. In terms of goalscoring, the pupil has eclipsed his departed Swedish master. Il Faraone (the Pharaoh) reigns supreme.
El Shaarawy has adapted to his new status with élan, feeding off the confidence of his coach and revelling in his position on the left side of Milan's attack. Game by game, he has grown in stature and effectiveness this term, without losing any of his youthful vigour. It has been a remarkable progression, not least since he was the player most likely to find himself singled out for criticism by Ibrahimovic last season. Even then, though, he was quick to recognise that his experienced team-mate was merely pushing him to improve, rather than voicing his displeasure.
The now Paris Saint-Germain forward's imposing presence was a clear stimulus for the youngster, although El Shaarawy was never shy to defend himself whenever castigated for not passing him the ball. "Zlatan burns with the desire to win," he says now. "I read his autobiography because I was curious to understand his journey in life and in his career. I wanted to understand his huge ambition."
Feet on the ground
Pressed to name his idol and El Shaarawy will cite Ronaldinho, but his style is far more reminiscent of another former Rossoneri great, Andriy Shevchenko, with whom he shares a tremendous sense of application, a willingness to learn and a gift for keeping things simple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those same qualities have helped him become a popular figure in the dressing room, even if he is conscious how much his life has been transformed since he first arrived at Milanello, the club's training complex. "Your life can't but change, especially when you've always lived in small towns like me," he explains.
"I've got to know some great champions here. In technical terms, I learned a lot from Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, while on a personal level Clarence Seedorf, Pipo Inzaghi and Massimo Ambrosini have played an important role. In particular, they've advised me how to organise my life in Milan, how to behave away from the pitch, how to choose and listen to the right people, how to take training seriously, how to act towards supporters and the need to limit my appearances in public."
I still act the same way around everyone, including my old friends from Savona. The only difference now is that it's me who's buying the pizza.
Perhaps paradoxically, his biggest fear now is not failure, but over-confidence. "I thought it would be easy not to get carried away," he says. "Actually, it's tough. When you see a footballer, you say to yourself: 'How do they get to be so presumptuous?' But when it's you, and people never stop asking for autographs or photos, and they're always on your back, you start to think of yourself as some sort of phenomenon. Luckily, my father is there to make sure I keep my feet on the ground. I still act the same way around everyone, including my old friends from Savona. The only difference now is that it's me who's buying the pizza."
As for Allegri, he feels nothing but gratitude, despite having often been left on the bench last season. "I have to thank him," he says. "He's not someone who speaks a lot, but when he does it's always to give you good advice, whether it's about football or life in general." Indeed, paying heed to the guidance of his elders has been key to El Shaarawy's progression, and club vice-president Adriano Galliani has been one of many to note the results. "When he joined us, he had a lot of problems," recalls Galliani. "Now, at 20 years of age, he's demonstrating incredible maturity. He's one of the best players in the world in his age group, along with Neymar."
Combination with Balotelli
International recognition has come at a young age too, and El Shaarawy was started alongside 21-year-old Mario Balotelli in Italy's 2-1 loss to France on 14 November, opening his Azzurri account with the home side's goal. "It was very important for me, even if my goal wasn't enough for us to beat France, who are a very strong team. My understanding with Balotelli is excellent. It felt perfect playing with him and he's a great player."
Given El Shaarawy's rapid ascent, many more chances to hone that partnership surely lie ahead. After all, he has struck 13 times in just 16 Serie A outings this season – at a rate of 0.81 goals per game – and has proved himself capable of changing a match in a variety of ways, be it a laser-guided cross from the left, a long-range shot full of power or precision, or even by threatening closer to goal like a traditional centre-forward.
He likewise enjoys the ability to conjure a pragmatic finish à la Inzaghi, as he did in Sunday's 4-2 defeat of Torino, chipping the ball over the goalkeeper for his team's fourth goal after having served up an assist for the third. He may be anxious to keep his feet on the ground, but Il Faraone is positively soaring at the moment, especially in the familiar surroundings of the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. "It's a fabulous place", he says. "It's like a buffalo breathing down on you for 90 minutes. You really feel it in a powerful way on the pitch. Because of that, I never stop running. I chase every ball, because that's what the people want."
He is now looking forward to the winter break in Italy, and not just to recharge his batteries after months of tireless running. Above all, he is keen for a holiday – and one paid for by Milan captain Ambrosini. The 35-year-old bet the youngster that he could not score seven goals before December, and the time is fast approaching to settle that debt. Next season, who knows how high Ambrosini will set the bar?