There is no more vital player in the A.C. Milan squad than Stephan El Shaarawy.
Milan has remained a fixture near the Serie A table for years. The Rossoneri haven't finished below fifth since 2007/08 or outside a European place since 1997/98.
That could change this year.
As a result, big earners Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold this past summer.
One player that remains is El Shaarawy.
His contract was expiring at the end of the season, but Milan tied him up for the long term with a new deal that expires in 2017 (via UEFA.com).
It was a wise move because there's no more important player at the club right now than El Shaarawy. The numbers can attest to this fact.
Milan has scored 36 goals in Serie A so far this season, and El Shaarawy in one way or another has accounted for 17 of them. His 14 goals and three assists mean he's been directly involved in about 47 percent of the club's scoring.
He sits second in the league in goals for the year. When Edinson Cavani is the guy ahead of you and Antonio Di Natale the one below, you're in very good company.
The scary thing is that El Shaarawy is only 20 years old.
His talent was not in question last year, but some wondered if at his young age he would be ready to contribute everything the club needed. It's a lot to ask a youngster to be the focal point of the attack for a club as big as the Rossoneri.
Clearly, El Shaarawy looks up for it. As he continues to bang in the goals, his confidence only grows as well.
If you're wondering how he can be so developed so early into his career, simply look at the players from whom he learned. Paolo Bandini of The Guardian wrote a piece about El Shaarawy back in early December. The lede of the piece is such:
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."
That is quite a list of exceptional players from which to be mentored. Young footballers would salivate at the chance to get tips from the likes of Ibra, Silva and Clarence Seedorf.
Coincidentally, selling Ibra was the best thing for his career. Although El Shaarawy is not a central striker, he has the permission to roam down the left across the pitch that would not have been afforded to him with Ibrahimovic in the lineup.
His exploits this season are in stark contrast to one of his compatriots: Mario Balotelli. Both players can be a bit mercurial at times.
With Balotelli, though, he's caused nothing but problems for most of his career, and his overall production hasn't been enough to outweigh his off-pitch exploits.
Perhaps no Italian has as much potential as Balotelli, but that's not worth anything if he doesn't follow through on it.
El Shaarawy, on the other hand, is putting together results on the pitch, and for the most part he's staying level-headed.
He can represent a new dawn for the Rossoneri.
For so long, the club relied on veterans like Seedorf, Paolo Maldini, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta, etc. It was always going to be painful replacing players of such a high quality.
El Shaarawy is easing some of that hurt. In addition, as Tim Fontenault so astutely put it in his piece earlier in the week, the winger can help to bring in a younger talent to the club.
Those players will see El Shaarawy and know that Milan is no longer a club dominated by veteran players on the decline.
Make no mistake about it. If Milan wants to get back to the top of Serie A, it will need El Shaarawy to pave the way. And with his play on the pitch, it seems he's perfectly willing.
A.C. Milan aren't in a position where it can win the title this year and maybe not even next year. With the winger, though, the club has a player to build around for future seasons. As the club grows, so will El Shaarawy.
A resurgence is afoot at the San Siro, and El Shaarawy is leading it.
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