AC Milan lost several big names last summer but with Stephan El Shaarawy bursting onto the scene and even centre-backs scoring spectacular overhead kicks, all was not lost.
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After a summer which saw AC Milan bid farewell to many of their elder statesmen – not to mention key players like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thiago Silva and Antonio Cassano – many expected a difficult journey in a competitive Group C. In the event, Massimiliano Allegri's side booked their place in the UEFA Champions League's last 16 with a game to spare, despite picking up only two points at home.
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Having started the campaign with a goalless home draw with RSC Anderlecht, a trip to free-spending FC Zenit St Petersburg was already something of a crossroads for the seven-time European champions. The Rossoneri took a turn for the better, edging a 3-2 win courtesy of Tomáš Hubočan's late own goal. A solitary point from two meetings with Málaga CF left them with work to do, but again they prospered on their travels. A 3-1 triumph at Anderlecht took Milan through, rendering their last-day home defeat by Zenit relatively painless.
With the visitors holding a precarious 1-0 lead at Anderlecht on matchday five, centre-back Philippe Mexès provided Milan with a cushion via a spectacular overhead kick from the edge of the box. A strong candidate for goal of the group stage, the strike all but sealed victory and with it qualification. "The only thing to do was to give it a go," explained the defender. Exactly what this young Milan team will have to do in the knockout stages.
A used substitute in the opener against Anderlecht, Stephan El Shaarawy started the following game at Zenit and wasted no time making his mark with a first UEFA Champions League goal. The 'Little Pharaoh', irresistible in Serie A, netted again in the decisive win at Anderlecht, yet the 20-year-old forward has more to his game than goals. "He only needed to wear the gloves and save some of Zenit's shots – he did everything else," wrote Gazzetta dello Sport after the match in St Petersburg when he ran 12.11km.
Just a week older than El Shaarawy, Mattia De Sciglio is also making waves, establishing himself as first-choice right-back. Disciplined in defence, and able to run up and down the flank for 90 minutes, sending in dangerous crosses, the 20-year-old has earned high praise. "Obviously I keep an extra eye on Mattia as he plays the same position that I used to," said assistant coach Mauro Tassotti, a former Milan and Italy defender. "He has amazed us since his first training sessions with the first team. He is stronger than I was at his age."
In the 3-2 success at Zenit, El Shaarawy became the youngest Milan player to score in the UEFA Champions League at 19 years and 342 days.
"We are a team that is developing fast after a slow start, so we just have to continue on this path, playing every game with this spirit."
Captain Massimo Ambrosini after the matchday six defeat by Zenit.