When Stephan El Shaarawy put pen to paper on a new contract recently, he added another positive to what's already looking like a very exciting new chapter in AC Milan's history.
El Shaarawy's blossoming partnership up front with fellow Italian international Mario Balotelli and the incredible promise shown so far by 18-year-old M'Baye Niang have given the Milanisti plenty to be happy about. And so soon, after it seemed all hope was lost following the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to Paris Saint-Germain.
How unlikely it had seemed that the Rossoneri would have two of Italian football's brightest prospects up front, the pair firing them to victory in some style and with few of the mistakes that so often mark the inexperience of youth.
Whether El Shaarawy's success was in fact predicted by those behind the scenes at the club or merely the result of some good fortune for Messrs. Berlusconi and Galliani is open to discussion. But the Savona native's role in turning around the Rossoneri's fortunes is not up for debate—he's been vital.
Keen observers have been tipping the 20-year-old for big things, but not even the player himself is likely to have predicted that at this stage of the season he'd be second only to Edinson Cavani in Serie A's scoring charts. And incredibly, he's only behind the mercurial Uruguayan because Cavani takes the penalties for Napoli. From open play, he's one ahead.
Last season El Shaarawy made a promising start to his career as a first-team regular, neglecting the opportunity to leave Milan on loan in search of experience and eventually carving out a place for himself among the regulars. But in 22 appearances, he scored just twice. This season, he's netted 16 times in 28 starts—an incredible return for a winger, and he's not finished yet.
To put that in context, Fabio Quagliarella, Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco are the top scorers at league leaders Juventus. They've notched 21 between them. Inter's signing of Rodrigo Palacio from Genoa has been judged a resounding success, and the Argentinian veteran has nine goals to his name. Stephan's Italy teammate Alberto Gilardino is an experienced and well-respected front man, but the Bologna forward has scored five fewer than the winger, despite seeing more game time.
In the same period, El Shaarawy has become Milan's youngest ever scorer in the Champions League—he scored against FC Zenit Saint Petersburg—and turned into the player his teammates look to when they need a lightening dribble or slicing pass to undo the best teams in the game as he did against Barcelona, for example.
Put another way, he's become the new Zlatan. He's obviously a very different player with different skills and a different approach to the game. But El Shaarawy has become the focal point of all that is positive about Milan, and just as in the past the Rossoneri relied heavily on the Swedish striker, they've come to lean on the young winger when times are tough.
With such a young player, it's hard to predict what will happen next. In a week that's seen the retirement of England's Michael Owen, it would be foolish to suggest that a clearly gifted youngster is dead set for greatness.
But playing up front with Balotelli for club and country hints at the exciting prospect of a lethal partnership. He and his friend have much in common. Both are young with an abundance of skill and a racially diverse background in a country with little experience of immigration. They'll have shared similar pasts and can look forward to sharing similar futures.
It's early days, of course, but these shared experiences and their common understanding already seems to be cementing together what might be Serie A's most frightening strike force.
Last summer, AC Milan fans were queueing up to refund their season tickets. This summer they're likely to be queuing for a very different reason.
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