It started out as a wager between team-mates, and ended up with a young striker matching a record set by the great Marco Van Basten. "If you score seven goals before Christmas, I will pay for your holidays," Milan midfielder Massimo Ambrosini told Stephan El Shaarawy in the summer of 2012 (h/t Guardian Sport).
Realising he had set the bar too low, Ambrosini vowed to upgrade that vacation from a trip to the mountains to a trip to the Caribbean if El Shaarawy could reach 10 goals before Serie A took its winter break. The youngster promptly did so—with over a month to spare—and the older man refused to increase his wager for a third time.
Serie A’s leading scorer as 2013 began, he had 13 goals to his name, a tally which was almost 40 per cent of the Rossoneri total at that stage of the campaign. His first 12 came in just 15 league games, a figure which matched Van Basten's best-ever start to a season for the club, and the last time that return was bettered by a player under 20 was Jose Altafini in the 1950s.
Shortly after, Adriano Galliani completed one of his trademark deals, bringing Mario Balotelli to the club after quickly negotiating a transfer from Manchester City. The prospect of pairing two of the most talented strikers the peninsula had ever produced was mouth-watering, Milan fans believing the duo could fire them to glory for years to come.
Their partnership was given its first test just days after Balotelli joined the club, and it would immediately bear fruit. Fielded on the left of a trident, with the new man in the central role, El Shaarawy beat his man and pulled back for “Super Mario,” who smashed home his first goal for the club in the 25th minute.
Udinese would snatch an equaliser, only for El Shaarawy to win a penalty for a foul by Thomas Heurtaux, Balotelli making no mistake from the resultant spot kick. Sadly for those who hold the Rossoneri dear, it would prove to be a false dawn, with the younger striker failing to keep up his incredible start to the season.
He would net just one more league goal as Balotelli lifted Milan to third place and into a coveted Champions League berth, with El Shaarawy suffering from fatigue in the second half of the season. Yet there were still signs they could evolve into an excellent double act, the Rossoneri going undefeated in the nine games in which they both started.
In those matches, the two men combined for eight goals and two assists, despite the third spot in Massimiliano Allegri’s trident being filled by a combination of Robinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng or M'baye Niang. Despite that evidence, El Shaarawy’s lack of goals led to accusations that the two could not co-exist, a claim the 21-year-old was quick to refute.
“The criticism we are getting seems a bit too much,” he told Milan’s in-house TV channel (h/t FootballItalia). “I know that we need to improve in some areas of our game, but it is not true that we can't work together.” Speculation that one of the pair would be sold was refuted by club vice-president Galliani (per Sky Sports) but El Shaarawy’s injury issues have limited him to just five appearances in 2013-14.
Despite that, their understanding continued to develop as they registered two goals and an assist in their three early starts together before the younger man’s foot problem ruled him out. Now he is set to return, and Clarence Seedorf’s 4-2-3-1 framework seems tailor-made to get the best from both men.
As well as clearly being an excellent finisher in front of goal, El Shaarawy works tirelessly for his team, averaging 1.1 tackles and 1.0 interception per game last term, according to stats site WhoScored.com. The same source shows he completed a highly respectable 30 of his 101 cross attempts and created 56 clear goal-scoring opportunities.
If the former Genoa and Padova star is suited to the berth on the left flank, Balotelli is definitely the central star of Seedorf’s attacking system. His role was analysed in detail here, and he has continued his phenomenal strike rate for Milan, a goal against Livorno this past weekend taking him to 30 goals in his first 50 appearances for the club.
He can play either as the front man in the formation, or in the middle of the trident to allow Giampaolo Pazzini to take up the lead role. Kaka, Keisuke Honda and Adel Taarabt are also available, giving the Dutch coach a plethora of options with which to surround his two young stars.
Italy’s Cesare Prandelli is also aware of their quality, fielding them together as the Azzurri lost 2-1 to France in a friendly. Speaking in February last year, the coach openly discussed the potential of the pair, telling reporters (h/t UEFA.com):
Mario can only get better. The fact that he will play with El Shaarawy at club level is an advantage for us. I'm not saying that we have already decided the attacking pair of the future but we had already tried them together against France in November and saw their potential.
That the goal came as a result of some great interplay between the two men, and Milan team-mate Riccardo Montolivo further reinforces the idea they can not only play together, but that their partnership can thrive.
In this desperately dark season for Milan, the ability to draw the best from El Shaarawy and Balotelli hints at a bright future.