By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
There are down sides to football in mid-June. In Novara last summer, the Serie B play-off final second leg was played on a sweltering Sunday night. Even before kick-off, as the home side carried out the obligatory handshakes with visitors Padova, it was clear that leaving the mosquito repellent at home had been a bad idea.
But it all seemed worth it. A flying Azzurri were coming up against Stephan El Shaarawy, a player who had gradually become a magnificent force in the second tier. Everything looked to be set up for a fantastic finale to the season. But just 14 minutes in, the enjoyment was spoiled.
As Pablo Gonzalez broke free just outside the box, defender Cesar pulled him back. The red card was inevitable, and once the Argentine had got up and fired home a superb free-kick, Biancorosso boss Alessandro Dal Canto had to do something to stop the bleeding. On came Trevor Trevisan to bolster the defence, but the fact that it was El Shaarawy he replaced took the sting out of the night. From then on, it felt like destiny was with Novara. Marco Rigoni’s late clincher ensured it was.
|EL SHAARAWY's SEASON SO FAR
Udinese (h) GOAL
Novara (Cup) GOAL
Seven months on, El Shaarawy returns to the Stadio Silvio Piola tonight for the first time since that final appearance in a Padova shirt, and it comes a vital stage of his development as an AC Milan player. Starved of football so far this term, the big-money signing has been regularly linked with a loan move away from San Siro to spark his season.
But having played the equivalent of less than two full games before the last week, the 19-year-old Italo-Egyptian suddenly has reason to hope his luck is turning. His introduction in last Sunday’s Milan derby was more than just a token gesture, with his extra dynamism giving the Rossoneri an edge they had been lacking throughout.
He followed that up in midweek with an excellent display in the Coppa Italia win over tonight’s opponents, regularly dropping into positions from which he could dictate attacks without the attentions of Novara’s three tough centre-backs. His fantastic opening goal was only a small part of his contribution.
And now, with Alexandre Pato set to be missing for the next four weeks and Robinho not always hitting the heights of last season – added to Antonio Cassano’s long-term absence – El Shaarawy suddenly becomes a vital addition to the Milan squad.
Filippo Inzaghi proved on Wednesday that he can play a part for 30 minutes at a time, but probably no longer than that anymore. El Shaarawy, on the other hand, has been restricted in the length of his appearances when really he could be playing an awful lot more.
Now is the time to unleash the teenage sensation on Serie A. After scoring his first goal for the club as a substitute for the injured Pato against Udinese in September, he was given an hour of the next match against Cesena. But that was his last start in the league. Massimiliano Allegri has done his best to wrap him in cotton wool ever since, but his displays in the past seven days suggest he does not need the pampering.
El Shaarawy owes Novara one. The play-off final defeat was a sickener for Padova, and it was particularly gutting for the youngster. The goal in the Coppa Italia was not enough. Tonight he could compound their misery while also providing a springboard from which his Milan career could truly take off.
If you’re good enough, you’re old enough, they say. El Shaarawy should now get the chance to prove that he could be the Rossoneri’s next star forward. And with the Champions League list still to be drawn up for the knockout phase, the timing could not be any better.Follow Kris Voakes on