Stephan El Shaarawy rediscovering form that made him Pharaoh of Milan
"We bet your biggest fan Pope Francis won't like our mascot," Milan tweeted ahead of Wednesday's Trofeo Berlusconi against the Copa Libertadores-winners San Lorenzo at San Siro. The accompanying picture was of their talisman, the Diavolo walking out on the pitch, his horns poking through, his tail pointing upward with a menacing smile matched only in these circles by Gunnersaurus.
Already aware of Milan's nickname, the former Inter defender and assistant coach Sinisa Mihajlovic picked up on it ahead of their visit to his high-flying Sampdoria at Marassi on Saturday night. Unbeaten at home this season, he hoped that come the end of the evening that record of theirs would still be intact and the Blucerchiati would still be third in la classifica. "To stay in heaven we have to beat the devil," was Mihajlovic's witty retort in his pre-match news conference. And "I have a phenomenal exorcist," added Samp's vaudeville owner Massimo Ferrero, "my Sinisa."
No cassock was donned, holy water sprinkled nor cross held out by Mihajlovic to perform this exorcism, and perhaps therein lies why it wasn't a success. Samp went behind, changed shape, got level before halftime and went in front after the interval with their eighth set-piece goal of the season. Only Empoli have scored a higher percentage in Serie A. And to think it was Milan who headhunted a dead-ball guru, Gianni Vio, from Fiorentina this summer.
The Rossoneri would claim a point via a 2-2 draw, however, after Djamel Mesbah, a former player of theirs, handled the ball in the area and presented Jeremy Menez with a penalty that he duly converted. Spectators attending the Luigi Ferraris in expectation of an exorcism didn't leave disappointed, though. Someone did confront and vanquish their demons, just not Mihajlovic. That someone was Stephan El Shaarawy.
He had given Milan the lead after only 10 minutes. The move showcased what Pippo Inzaghi is seeking to achieve going forward: quick transition play (in this case through Nigel de Jong and Menez) into a fast-break with Keisuke Honda making the kind of intelligent off-the-ball run, convincing an opponent to back off El Shaarawy and allow him the time and space to curl a shot inside the far corner from outside the box. A gol alla El Shaarawy, as Inzaghi put it: typical of him.
The setting alone made this a special goal for the 22-year-old. Raised in nearby Savona, his friends and family were in the crowd at Marassi. To put one past Samp too, as a former Genoa player who made his Serie A debut for the Grifone aged 16 must have been sweet. But all this couldn't explain the emotion in El Shaarawy's reaction. He fell to his knees, bent down and clenched his fists to his face. He cried. This was a liberation.
El Shaarawy hadn't scored in Serie A since Feb. 24, 2013. It was as though the Pharaoh, as the Milan striker is nicknamed -- his father is Egyptian -- had been in a state of mummification these past 622 days. If it were a movie, Hollywood producers would perhaps call it "The Mummy Returns."
One of the explanations for the drought is that El Shaarawy was under wraps for much of last season. He tore a muscle shortly after the campaign started, then suffered a microfracture to the fourth metatarsal of his left foot at the beginning of October. The recommended treatment was to let it heal as naturally as possible. Scheduled to make his comeback in December, El Shaarawy relapsed and going under the knife became inevitable. He wouldn't feature in red and black until mid-May and, having been involved in the Confederations Cup in Brazil the previous summer, missed out on the Italy squad for the World Cup.
There was more to this lengthy spell without a goal than a broken foot, though. El Shaarawy's force had faded long before he heard a crack and felt a pain. On the whole, 2013 had been an annus horribilis for him. Milan, if you recall, even appeared to be testing the market for offers for him early that summer, keeping El Shaarawy's future in suspense while he was on the other side of the world on international duty with Italy.
To many, his sudden loss of form was a sphinx-like mystery. In his first season as a regular in the team, the season after Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold, and Alessandro Nesta, Rino Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi moved on, he had improbably taken Milan on his young shoulders and carried them towards respectability. El Shaarawy, who was only 19 at the beginning of that campaign, scored 16 goals before Christmas. He was showing the precociousness of great Italian strikers like the player after whom San Siro is named, Giuseppe Meazza, and Silvio Piola.
The bet he'd made with his captain Massimo Ambrosini to score seven by the winter break and have his holidays paid for or forfeit his trademark "crest" haircut, which several members of the dressing room had been threatening to shave off, had obviously served as ample motivation. But shortly afterward, the goals ran out. No one could put their finger on why. Starting every three days and dragging the team by himself had understandably taken a physical and mental toll on El Shaarawy. He got to spring and was exhausted.
Milan also signed Mario Balotelli from Manchester City. Although the pair were good friends and held up as the great hope not only for their club but their country too, there were reservations about their ability to play together, reservations El Shaarawy has never held. But the arrival of Balotelli brought a change of system and emphasis. He was now the leading man and the team was playing for him, too. Balotelli scored twice on his debut and got 12 in his first 13 games for Milan. He looked like the real deal. El Shaarawy meanwhile was doing a lot of selfless legwork up and down the flank. But it was also up to him to adapt.
Even before Balotelli touched down at Malpensa, there was an argument that opponents were getting wise to the Faraone. He'd burst down the left, cut inside on his right and try and get a shot away. It was predictable. Of course there's nothing wrong with that as long as you're so good at what you do, you can execute. For instance, everyone knows Arjen Robben wants to come inside on his left but few can stop him.
El Shaarawy however seemed to take a while to comprehend why something that had worked so well for him in the past, didn't anymore. It was like he had been told that what came natural to him, his instincts, the things that had got him into the first team at Milan were wrong. It was like El Shaarawy was his own worst enemy. He talks about it as if he had to unlearn what he already knew about football and start over.
"It's a question of the mental mechanisms that are sent from your memory to your brain and onto the position of your body," he told Sportweek. "With time I'll learn to do more things, different things." All considered, is it really a surprise if he began to doubt himself and lost himself in the process?
Fit again for the start of this season, El Shaarawy himself billed it as one of redemption. The appointment of Pippo Inzaghi (and sale of Balotelli) augured well for him. Milan planned to play to his strengths again. They would build the team around El Shaarawy. "I chose the 4-3-3 for him," Inzaghi told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Excellent in Milan's opening-day win against Lazio when he raced up the left-hand side and set up Honda for the team's first goal of the season, the old El Shaarawy appeared to be back. But trust his luck, he then turned his ankle. Recovering in time for Juventus, he was then dropped for the trips to Empoli and Cesena.
"There's a little displeasure at being left out," El Shaarawy said. "There's incazzatura too." He was displeased, to say the least, at the decision. Inzaghi wished the player had kept his frustration private but said in response: "I'd be angry if he were happy (with the situation) ... He wants to play and for that I can only be pleased."
Appearances aside, and Rino Gattuso used to despair at seeing El Shaarawy spend what seemed like hours plucking his eyebrows and restyling his hair in the dressing room, he's a dedicated professional -- "buono e bravo," as Italian grandmothers like to say. He shouldn't and didn't have to train the day after the Trofeo Berlusconi in midweek but went to Inzaghi and asked if he could. If it meant getting into the condition and the mindset to put an end to his torment, he'd push through it.
Saturday's goal was his reward. It also had a timeliness to it. Earlier in the week, the Italy coach Antonio Conte had expressed his hope that El Shaarawy get back to his best.
"It's up to him whether he becomes a good or a great player," Conte said. "I think he's got every quality needed in order to leave a mark both in Italy and abroad." Those comments and Conte's presence in the stands at Marassi were an ulterior motive for El Shaarawy to perform. He didn't disappoint.
"The legs felt good," he said. "I would have preferred a victory to get us back on track, but I'm happy to be back on the score sheet. I'd been dry now for more than 20 games."
Smiling, he left the Luigi Ferraris with an Italy kit bag slung over his shoulders. It could have been an old one but the speculation was that he'd been handed it ahead of the international break. When the squad list was published on Sunday night for the Azzurri's upcoming games against Croatia and Albania, his name was on it. Those matches are to take place at grounds El Shaarawy considers to be home, San Siro and Marassi. It seems the time has finally come for The Pharaoh to make his troubles ancient history.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.