A.C. Milan's Stephan El Shaarawy had a breakout season in 2012/13, but this year could be even more important for his career.
Last season, the Italian winger started 42 matches for Milan, up from just 11 in his first year with the club the previous season. He got off to a very strong start in 2012/13, leading Serie A with 14 goals at the midway point.
However "Il Faraone" slowed down considerably in the second half of the season, scoring only two more goals in Serie A and finishing with 19 goals in all club competitions on the season.
When El Shaarawy sat out from training and appeared in just two of Italy's five Confederations Cup matches in June, it became more apparent that he suffered from late season fatigue. Such a problem was understandable considering he appeared in 46 total matches and his previous high for appearances in a season was 30.
With last season under his belt as a significant learning experience, El Shaarawy stands to improve even more going into this year. He will now have a full season to play alongside compatriot Mario Balotelli, who arrived in the January transfer window from Manchester City. More playing time with a legitimate scoring threat in the middle should boost El Shaarawy's assist totals from a season ago, when he managed four in Serie A and six in all competitions.
Also, although the league has new goal scorers like Balotelli, Juventus transfers Fernando Llorente and Carlos Tevez and Napoli transfer Gonzalo Higuain, El Shaarawy could make a run to be Serie A's leading scorer this season.
Despite his rough second half last season, he still managed to finish third in goals scored, behind only Edinson Cavani and Antonio Di Natale. Cavani has since been sold to French side PSG. As for Di Natale, he hasn't shown major signs of slowing down the past few seasons, but it's no guarantee the Udinese striker, who will turn 36 during the season, can repeat his performance.
Early on last season, Bleacher Report's Sam Lopresti suggested that Milan could build a dynasty around El Shaarawy. Nearly a year later, he still holds that promise. Lopresti called him "Cristiano Ronaldo lite" and for good reason. Like the Real Madrid star, El Shaarawy is a right-footed player who is, "a great dribbler, and loves cutting inside from the wing, both with the ball and without, to create chances."
With El Shaarawy's talent, it seems the only potential pitfall is him tiring out at the end of the season again. However this seems unlikely now that he has experienced a full-length season.
It will also be important for him to go the distance because once Milan concludes play in 2014, El Shaarawy will shift his focus to the national team as Italy prepares for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. As mentioned earlier, El Shaarawy played just twice in the Confederations Cup, coming on as a substitute in the group stage against Brazil and playing the entire 120 minutes against Uruguay in the third-place match (so much for being tired).
Cesare Prandelli has relied heavily upon Andrea Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi, Claudio Marchisio, and Riccardo Montolivo during his time as Italy's coach. However those four all occupy central midfield roles. Someone needs to provide width on the pitch. El Shaarawy can and should be the one to do so.
He burst onto the scene last season, but El Shaarawy was just scratching the surface. This season will provide him an even bigger opportunity to showcase his talent if he is able to take advantage of it for the whole season. If he continues on his current path, by 2014 Stephan El Shaarawy will make the transition from one of Italy's promising future stars to one of the best young players in the world.