Until recently, if you wanted to make fun of Italian football you didn't have to look any farther for a target than AC Milan. The club's president made more headlines than the team and the changing room was full of players who could have reasonably retired five or even 10 years previous. No longer the European giant that so frightened teams across the continent, it looked like a sad caricature of itself.
How different things look now. The old guard were allowed their swan song, going out on a high by winning one last Scudetto.
And then came the changes. Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and more—all gone.
All good things must come to an end, and for those legends of the Rossonero shirt, the time had come. For the club, too, the time was right for change, fresh faces and new ideas.
Fast forward to today and Milan have one of the youngest, most exciting squads in the league. Massimiliano Allegri is himself only 45 and his charges are mostly in their early 20s. The aim is clear: get 'em young.
The club has put its faith in youth—a commitment so often sorely lacking in Italian football. And at the vanguard of it all are Stephan El Shaarawy and Mario Balotelli. Two immensely gifted attackers who could well be the future for not only club, but country, too.
Happy times lay ahead in Milan, which is surely a surprise to many following the heartache of watching the squad's two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, leave for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer. The question at the San Siro has gone from "Who'll replace Ibra" to "Ibra who?".
Of course, the club must have known it had a talent in El Shaarawy. But they wouldn't have expected him to rise to the task of replacing Zlatan so formidably.
"Score seven goals before Christmas," challenged Massimo Ambrosini, "and I'll pay for your holidays." The challenge worked—the club captain was booking flights and hotel rooms before the end of October.
Quick and technically talented, confident on the ball and off it and a curious mix of youthful arrogance and refreshing humility, El Shaarawy seems the complete package. The Pharaoh, as he's come to be known thanks to his Egyptian roots, has 15 goals to his name already this season, bettered only by Edinson Cavani of Napoli. To say he's been the surprise of the Serie A season would be an understatement.
With Balotelli on the other hand, Milan new what they were getting. Fast and powerful but skillful too, precociously talented and a little hot-tempered, a superstar and a ready-made champion at the age of just 22.
They make quite the pair. In the Azzurri shirt the duo had already hinted at what might be to come, but playing together week in, week out at club level is a dream scenario for all involved. There's temptation to compare it all to Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli's time together at Sampdoria, when they scored so often they became known as i gemelli del gol, the goal twins.
Of course, there's some way to go before they can be mentioned seriously in the same breath as Mancini and Vialli, who were one of Italian football's greatest-ever pairings. They fired Samp to the club's only league title in 1991 and lifted four Coppa Italias and a Cup Winners' Cup. They narrowly missed out on the European Cup in '92, losing to Barcelona in the final. All of that, with Sampdoria.
Like I said, there's a way to go.
The signs look good though. They've already got a good rapport based on friendship and experience together in the national squad, and they're very much central to Milan's new project, so they should feel confident and wanted. Balotelli in particular seems to need regular reassurance of his importance to the team, so being an obviously central piece of the puzzle at the San Siro should do him a world of good.
El Shaarawy, meanwhile, seems happy to be along for the ride. You'd think such a rapid rise to fame might go to the guy's head, but the 20-year-old from Savona on the Ligurian coast seems as humble as the day he signed on.
"I would thank Allegri above all," he told reporters earlier in the season. "He is not one who says a lot, but when he does he has given me good advice—both on a footballing level and a human one. After this run of matches in which I have played very well, he told me to keep my feet on the ground."
Both the Pharaoh and Super Mario need to build consistency more than anything else. The talent is there, as is the relationship. El Shaarawy can become the Mancini to Balo's Vialli, if only they can learn to do what the truly great players do and put the hot-and-cold streaks behind them.
After starting the season so well, El Shaarawy is now in a little bit of a rut—one which hopefully the new arrival can help him get out of. He's also yet to really shine against top opposition, save for his two goals against Napoli in November.
Similarly, Balo went from being a goal machine in 2011-12 for Manchester City to being unable to score for them this term. A swiftly scored goal on his debut showed that he still knows how, however, and Allegri will be hoping it will come naturally again soon.
The second coming of i gemelli del gol? Whisper it, but maybe.