Straight from the dark heart of Italy
AC Milan were standing at the crossroads of their season on Saturday evening: one route led down a frozen path as Juventus disappeared into the distance, the other a charge to the top of the table.
Being Milan, they did what one would expect of them. The Rossoneri found a bit of that old devil that had been missing from their play for the last few weeks to come away from the frigid tundra of Udine with all three points, and move back to the top of the table (Juve were once again left out in the cold when their match at Bologna was postponed due to snow).
It was a show of real character from the defending champions, who were without 13 first-team regulars through either injury or suspension. The latter could potentially keep Zlatan Ibrahimovic out of a further two matches if the slappy Swede does not have his three-game ban reduced on appeal – an important issue as the third would mean missing the crucial match against Juventus at the end of the month.
No need to be duly concerned, however: Milan have a new star to fawn over in the shape of Stephan El Shaarawy. He is proving the old adage that if the talent is there, your age doesn't matter – unless you happen to be Filippo Inzaghi, 38, who has been usurped by the 19-year-old.
With Milan producing a performance in keeping with the glacial temperatures to leave them trailing to Antonio Di Natale’s goal, a half-time blast from Massimiliano Allegri produced the desired effect.
That, and the fact that Marco Amelia made a couple of crucial saves, kept the visitors in the contest until Maxi Lopez – another striker pushing poor old Pippo further down the Milan pecking order – was introduced to hand El Shaarawy some much-needed support.
Having laboured against the giants in the home defence, the youngster drifted out to the left flank, and it was from there that he produced a darting diagonal run before driving in a low shot-cross that goalkeeper Samir Handanovic could only push back into the path of Lopez, who grabbed his first goal for the club.
It was a case of “Carlos who?” as the new signing had waited a whole week in a Milan hotel room while Adriano Galliani tried in vain to sign Carlos Tevez on loan, with the promise to Manchester City that if he were to sell either Pato or Robinho in the summer then he might hand City some money for a permanent move.
The fact that Tevez’s Argentine compatriot Lopez went on to set up El Shaarawy for the winner, then, could well have saved Milan the bother of having to enter any more protracted negotiations with the English club.
The pair will have more time to build their budding partnership, but the feeling is El Shaarawy could even get Inzaghi scoring again, such is the ease with which he brings his team-mates into the build-up. What's more, his near-post finish for the winner had SuperPippo written all over it.
Handed the moniker 'The Pharoah' for no other reason than his father is Egyptian, the Savona-born teenager has always been destined to climb to the top of the pyramid. He has represented Italy at every level through to the under-21s – and as this blog has said before, he could yet make Cesare Prandelli’s Italy squad for Euro 2012.
Coming through the youth ranks at Genoa to become the fourth-youngest player ever to make his Serie A debut (at 16 years and 55 days), it was his player-of-the-season performances at Padova in Serie B last term that persuaded Milan they could pick up a cut-price gem.
Being a fan of the club may also have smoothed the move, and after a summer of bedding in at Milanello, where he developed some muscle for his slight frame, El Shaarawy was given his debut as a late substitute in the 3-1 defeat at Napoli in mid-September. In the following game, he came off the bench at the San Siro to announce his arrival as a genuine finisher, notching the equaliser against Udinese.
Scoring against the same opposition twice in a season will no doubt become a common occurrence for the spiky-haired wonderkid – he also found the net against Juventus in the Italian Cup in midweek – but Massimiliano Allegri will be well aware that he needs to nurture such talent.
The last thing Milan want is for him to end up like Pato, who burst on to the scene in similar fashion before succumbing to trappings of early stardom, where he was reportedly pulling much more than his hamstring.
The early signs are that, despite his extravagant hair-cut, El Shaarawy is a level-headed young man who has come a long way in the last few months.
He has scored the same number of goals as Pato this season but his four have come from two fewer starts, even though both players have appeared in 14 games overall. With the Brazilian back in full training, Allegri must decided whether to return the seemingly fragile 22-year-old to the starting line-up for the Champions League tie with Arsenal on Wednesday.
The problem, if one can call it that, is that Ibrahimovic will be back for the European tussle, and the perceived wisdom is that he and Pato are like oil and water. However, although El Shaarawy mirrors Pato with his raw pace, close control and finishing, he seems to have more awareness of what is going on around him, and so far his decision-making has been spot on.
Allegri should make the right choice on Wednesday and allow the rest of Europe to get a glimpse of this exciting new star of Italian football.
They should let El Shaarawy loose against Arsenal and let him prove himself. However, I'd be surprised if he starts. I'm sure the old Italian fear of losing will mean we'll be stuck with Robinho standing around scratching himself and Ibra doing his usual vanishing act at this stage of the CL. Still, I hope I'm wrong.
Wednesday turned into a double evening of delight for AC Milan – a demolition of Arsenal in the Champions
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