Coming into Wednesday’s Champions League match with Barcelona, Stephan El Shaarawy had been one of the central figures of AC Milan’s turnaround this season.
Mired in the bottom half of the Serie A table in October, the Rossoneri were able to reverse their slide and now sit fourth in the standings with 13 rounds to play—led by El Shaarawy and his 15 goals (a number which represents more than half of Milan’s total in the league).
So if his team has so relied on his offensive production this term, what does it say about El Shaarawy that one of his best performances in a Milan shirt to date was a match where he was often stuck out on the left and didn’t find the back of the net once?
Incredibly, Milan will go into the second leg of their Round of 16 tie with the Catalan giants ahead by two goals on aggregate. And while he scored neither, El Shaarawy had a major hand in both, and was also a major factor in Barcelona’s failure to score.
The opening goal was testament to his overall contribution.
Assigned the unenviable task of marking Barcelona full-back Dani Alves, El Shaarawy devoted himself to the role and considerably minimized the Brazilian’s time on the ball.
In the 51st minute, for example, he rushed down his own left flank alongside the marauding Alves and even though he lost him for a second, he turned him over to the attention of Kevin Constant, repositioned himself and took the ball off Alves as he initiated a Milan counter.
Six minutes later Milan were ahead, and it was largely down to El Shaarawy’s dominance of his matchup with Alves. He had gotten inside his opponent’s head, and as he prepared to launch an attack, he was elbowed in the face by the Barcelona man.
The Rossoneri scored on the ensuing free-kick—Riccardo Montolivo’s initial effort taking a deflection off a Barcelona player before inadvertently striking Cristian Zapata’s hand and finding its way to Kevin-Prince Boateng, who beat Victor Valdes with an unstoppable drive.
As a side note, the referee did well to allow the goal to stand, as Rule 12 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game states that hand-ball “involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm. Zapata wasn’t guilty of this, and in any case the ball had come off a Barcelona player first.
El Shaarawy was involved in Milan’s goal in the 81st minute as well.
Only eight minutes before, M’Baye Niang had replaced the ineffective Giampaolo Pazzini up front, and the 18-year-old began the scoring play by making a good run into the attacking third down the right.
He also played a superb ball into the goalmouth for El Shaarawy, who turned and laid it off for Sulley Muntari. Like Boateng earlier in the period, the Ghana international required only a single touch to beat Valdes.
What makes El Shaarawy’s performance all the more impressive is that he did it well below full fitness.
Having picked up a knee injury in a match against Cagliari on Feb. 10, he wasn’t even on the bench when Milan hosted Parma last Friday and played his 87 minutes against Barcelona with a brace.
And it`s not like he just sat up top. He spent much of the night in a foot-race with one of the fastest full-backs in Europe and still managed to retain the presence of mind to set up Muntari for the important second goal.
Milan did what many had thought was impossible on Friday and might now even be favored to progress to the quarterfinals at Barcelona`s expense. And in the process of distributing credit, El Shaarawy stands first in line.