The young Rossoneri forward has helped the team recover to seventh after scoring fully 50% of their league goals this season
Stephan El Shaarawy is running out of mentors. Asked which players he had learned the most from so far in his young career, the Milan forward gave Saturday's edition of Sportweek magazine five names. "I would say [Zlatan] Ibra[himovic] and Thiago Silva from a technical standpoint," he replied. "Then [Clarence] Seedorf, [Pippo] Inzaghi and [Massimo] Ambrosini on a human level."
As recently as May he could have counted all five as club team-mates, but that figure has since been reduced to one. Ibrahimovic and Silva were sold to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer; Seedorf was allowed to leave the club following the expiry of his contract and now plays for Botafogo in Brazil; Inzaghi was not offered a new playing contract but instead persuaded to take up a role coaching one of the club's youth teams.
In their absence, the onus was on Ambrosini to ensure that the player stayed on track. For a while the Milan captain thought he had come up with the perfect ruse. "If you score seven goals before Christmas, I will pay for your holidays," he told El Shaarawy, only to watch his team-mate hit that target before the end of October.
Seeing that he had set the bar too low, Ambrosini immediately vowed to upgrade said holiday from a trip to the mountains to a stay in the Caribbean if El Shaarawy could make it to 10 goals in the same time-frame. He promptly did so with more than a month still left to spare. Ambrosini, wisely, has so far declined to raise the stakes any further.
Motivation does not seem to be an issue for El Shaarawy – a player boasting an arrogant streak but also a corresponding humility. One who is sufficiently aware of his natural gifts to tell Sportweek that he always knew he would succeed at this level, yet also circumspect enough to insist in the next breath that he will never believe he has "made it", arguing that: "A champion's strength comes from never being contented."
That may come as a surprise to the growing body of observers who were beginning to believe that it might just come from the hair. El Shaarawy's Mohawk – La Cresta, as it is known in Italy – has achieved iconic status of late, though the truth is that when he first arrived from Genoa on a co-ownership deal it was met with a great deal of scepticism.
Such ostentatious personal grooming led some elder statesmen at the club to make assumptions about their new team-mate's priorities. Ibrahimovic and Ambrosini were among a group of players who threatened repeatedly to chop it off. On another occasion Gennaro Gattuso lambasted El Shaarawy for having the audacity to pluck his eyebrows. The then teenager's cause was certainly not helped when word got out that his hairdresser was an Inter fan.
These days, though, even the club's ownership is on-board. Following Silvio Berlusconi's most recent visit to the club's Milanello training ground, El Shaarawy excitedly informed Mediaset that the president had given his hair the official seal of approval. "[Berlusconi] told me I can keep the Mohawk," he said.
The player rewarded his owner's support with another pair of goals on Friday, though the first ought not to have stood. El Shaarawy was in an offside position when he prodded home a Robinho flick inside the box. It had arrived at a critical juncture, with Catania up 1-0 early in the second half, but having just seen Pablo Barrientos sent off. A mere three minutes later, Kevin-Prince Boateng would give Milan the lead.
For the Rossoneri, wrongly awarded a penalty in the previous week's win over Juventus, it was a second dose of good fortune in as many games. For Catania it was the latest in a line of refereeing injustices. The Sicilians had a goal wrongly disallowed in their home defeat to Juve earlier this season, before their visitors' offside winner in the same game was allowed to stand. Previously, Catania had also been denied a penalty during their loss away to Inter.
"Obviously when it comes to the big teams the linesman's flag suddenly becomes a lot heavier to lift," said the team's director Sergio Gasparin afterwards. So furiously had the home support protested that Galliani had to be escorted from his seat in the stands amid concerns for his safety.
But as much as Catania have cause to feel aggrieved, that should not take away from El Shaarawy's remarkable form. Even if you were to discount his first strike on Friday, he would still be the division's leading scorer with 11 goals – one more than his nearest rival, Edinson Cavani.
If you do include that goal, his tally rises to 12 in 15 league games, a figure which matches Marco van Basten's best-ever start to a season for the club. But the Dutchman was already at the peak of his powers by that time. To find a better return from a player 20 years old or younger you have to go all the way back to José Altafini in the 1950s.
El Shaarawy, indeed, is now responsible for fully 50% of the goals Milan have scored in Serie A, as well as a further two in the Champions League. His efforts have allowed the Rossoneri to climb back up to seventh in the table, claiming seven points from a series of fixtures – Napoli (a), Juventus (h), Catania (a) – in which three straight losses would at one point have seemed a likelier outcome.
And yet he remains keen to share the credit. "I would thank [the manager Massimiliano] Allegri above all," said El Shaarawy. "He is not one who says a lot, but when he does he has given me good advice – both on a footballing level and a human one. After this run of matches in which I have played very well, he told me to keep my feet on the ground."
After the various losses and indignities of the early part of this season for the Milan manager, it is safe to imagine that the appreciation is mutual.
• Only last season Serie A was identified as the second-oldest top flight in Europe, trailing only Cyprus, yet this was a weekend when it was easy to feel good about the future of Italian football. As noted in Gazzetta dello Sport, beyond the 20-year-old El Shaarawy's goals for Milan, the 22-year-old Alberto Paloschi scored a hat-trick for Chievo, the 21-year-old Mattia Destro scored a brace for Roma and the 21-year-old Manolo Gabbiadini grabbed Bologna's winner against Atalanta.
With others such as Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile also getting regular starts up front for their respective sides, there is a wave of fresh young attacking talent emerging in the division. Not all of those players will develop as we might hope, but in a league which has often been wary of even giving players a chance at that age, it feels like a positive development.
• Own goal of the week, courtesy of Palermo's Santiago García.
• The Derby della Mole returned to Serie A for the first time in more than three years on Saturday, and fittingly it was decided by two local boys – Claudio Marchisio scoring twice either side of a Sebastian Giovinco strike as Juventus eventually romped home against a Torino team for whom the defender Kamil Glik had been sent off in the 36th minute. Things might have gone even more smoothly for Juve had Andrea Pirlo not missed a penalty minutes later.
• That was Juve's last league game without Antonio Conte, who will return from his suspension to take charge for the game against Palermo next weekend. And if the team's form has slipped over the past couple of weeks then he can hardly be displeased to find them still two points clear at the top of Serie A. Now, though, he just needs them to get through their critical Champions League fixture away to Shakhtar Donetsk. A point will be enough to see Juventus through to the knockout stage.
• Snapping at Juve's heels once again in Serie A are Napoli, the best of a rather disappointing bunch when it comes to capitalising on the Bianconeri's recent poor form. The Partenopei put five goals past Pescara on Sunday, but achieving consistency – especially when key players are missing – remains this team's greatest challenge.
Results: Bologna 2-1 Atalanta, Catania 1-3 Milan, Fiorentina 2-2 Sampdoria, Genoa 2-4 Chievo, Inter 1-0 Palermo, Juventus 3-0 Torino, Lazio 2-1 Parma, Napoli 5-1 Pescara, Siena 1-3 Roma, Udinese 4-1 Cagliari