Too raw last season, Stephan El Shaarawy's "totally unexpected progress" has led the AC Milan striker to the top of the Serie A scoring chart and in sight of a Caribbean holiday.
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At the start of the season, many observers questioned the wisdom of AC Milan's decision to let Zlatan Ibrahimović join Paris Saint-Germain FC. At the time, Stephan El Shaarawy was known more for his unusual haircut than for his skills on the pitch – three months later, it is a different story.
El Shaarawy, still only 20, has amply filled the Sweden striker's shoes and is Serie A's leading scorer after his seventh league goal of the campaign – and eighth in total – in Tuesday's 2-2 draw at US Città di Palermo. "He has earned his winter vacation, but if he scores ten goals I'll pay for him to take a tour of the Caribbean," said Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini.
Ambrosini had earlier promised El Shaarawy he would pay for him to go on holiday if he found the net seven times in all competitions before December. The twice-capped Italy forward got there with something to spare, hitting the only goal against Genoa CFC on Saturday, and is now just two shy of his new target.
He is likely to need the Christmas break considering coach Massimiliano Allegri has used him in every Milan fixture this season. The 'Little Pharaoh' signed for Milan aged 13 and three years later became the youngest ever Serie A debutant. His strike away to FC Zenit St Petersburg on matchday two this term, at the age of 19 years and 342 days, also made him Milan's youngest UEFA Champions League goalscorer.
In 2011/12, off the back of a loan campaign at Padova Calcio, he was limited to six league starts, with Allegri firm in his belief that he was too raw to provide the team's focal point. With Antonio Cassano, Robinho, Pato and Ibrahimović also at the coach's disposal, it seemed the logical decision.
However, following the summer departures of Cassano and Ibrahimović, and given the injuries to Robinho and Pato, Allegri has had to take a gamble. "El Shaarawy became a totally different player compared with just a few months ago," said the trainer. "I will be honest, his progress was totally unexpected. It's something rare for a player to improve so fast, but I don't want to give him too much responsibility – he's still very young after all."
Initially a forward deployed on the left, El Shaarawy is equally capable of playing as an attacking midfielder or as a second striker. His diligence and new-found desire to work back have added further strings to his bow. "He is an example to everybody, as he has proved that it takes the right attitude to play football," added Allegri. "He tries to defend just like everybody else. It doesn't matter how talented you are if you don't work for the team."