Stephan El Shaarawy chose the right day to make an entrance at the bar of AC Milan's Milanello training complex. The 20-year-old was one of the last players to show up for afternoon training today, but, if anyone was due a lie-in, it was the club's new strike starlet, whose face is plastered all over the front pages of the newspapers scattered across tables. It is impossible not to sense the air of excitement growing around this gifted forward.
Milan's struggles to fill the boots of all the players who left in the summer have been eased by El Shaarawy, who has done his bit to replace Zlatan Ibrahimović's goals. After 13 Serie A matches last season, the Swede had scored eight; El Shaarawy's total this season was ten, without taking penalties. Still, he starts off the conversation talking about his predecessor: "Did you see Zlatan's goal? Only he could even think to try that."
He was referring to Ibrahimović's fourth strike for Sweden against England last month, the glorious overhead kick from outside the box. The fact that El Shaarawy wants to discuss a goal by someone else, after a milestone moment for himself, is revealing. As he speaks, it becomes apparent that his mohawk – copied by many teenagers in Italy – is the only frivolity of this intelligent, humble and articulate young man, known as the 'Little Pharaoh'.
He is grateful for the trust Milan placed in him after the departures of Ibrahimović and Antonio Cassano, and has seized the opportunity given him by coach Massimiliano Allegri. "I felt a lot of faith from his side, especially last season when I made 28 appearances," said the one-time Genoa CFC prospect. "This year I've felt even more faith, because the first two matches in Serie A didn't go well and he still continued to pick me.
"I have to thank him a lot for that. With the departures of Ibrahimović and Cassano, two great strikers left and I've more space now. I started the season in the best way possible personally; I grew a lot."
There is another happy consequence of his fine form. Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini made a bet with the youngster at the start of the season, and it has turned out very well. "It was about scoring seven goals before Christmas," El Shaarawy explained. "If I managed it, he would pay for my winter holidays. And I did. Now I only have to score one more and he will pay for my summer holidays too." Since this interview, more goals mean that trip is sorted as well.
As a piece of inspirational psychology, the wager did the trick. Last term, El Shaarawy's first at Milan, he eagerly took on board advice from the club's elder statesmen, the likes of Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf. In their absence, he is conscious that now is the time for the new generation to take responsibility.
This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the latest edition of Champions Matchday which is available in digital versions on Apple Newsstand or Zinio, as well as in print. You can follow the magazine on Twitter @ChampionsMag.
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