El Shaarawy shows why Conte believed in him when no one else did
REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini

Antonio Conte was always a believer. After being appointed as Italy's manager in the summer of 2014, he immediately called Stephan El Shaarawy up to train with the national team. This despite the forward missing almost the entire previous season through injury.

"El Shaarawy has all the characteristics to leave his mark on football in Italy and abroad," Conte said at the time. "It will be up to him if he wants to be a great footballer or a normal one."

Not everyone retained such faith in a player who'd burst onto the scene with 14 goals in 17 games for AC Milan in 2012 but hadn't done an awful lot since. Even fewer would have continued to believe as El Shaarawy struggled through a further two frustrating campaigns.

An endless sequence of physical ailments fuelled suggestions that his body was not up to the rigours of competing at that level. Even when El Shaarawy was fit, he struggled to make an impact. Milan packed him off on loan to Monaco at the start of the 2015-16 season, but the French club was so underwhelmed that it returned him to sender six months later. The Rossoneri then passed him on to Roma.

All throughout that miserable stretch, Conte continued to call El Shaarawy up regardless. He was included in Italy’s Euro 2016 squad, even as the likes of Leonardo Pavoletti - the highest-scoring Italian in Serie A at the time - and Sebastian Giovinco were excluded. Although he ultimately played just a few minutes in the tournament itself, his presence alone spoke volumes.

And when Conte was asked earlier this month which Roma players he admired ahead of their Champions League visit to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, he name-checked El Shaarawy alongside two others who served more prominent roles in that Italy side: Daniele De Rossi and Alessandro Florenzi. "It’s Roma's collective that scares you," the now Chelsea manager said. "But I'd steal a little heart from each of those three."

It was not El Shaarawy’s heart that undid Chelsea at the Stadio Olimpico, but instead his brilliant right boot. There were not yet 40 seconds on the clock when he met Edin Dzeko's knockdown with a half-volley into the top left corner. El Shaarawy then doubled the lead before half-time, capitalising on some indecisive defending from his former teammate Antonio Rudiger to steal in and grab a second.

They were goals that reminded us exactly how he'd captivated a nation in the first place. El Shaarawy was still a teenager when he broke through into the senior team at Milan, but his electric pace and coolness in front of goal marked him apart from the outset.

Yet this performance also hinted at an evolution under his new Roma manager, Eusebio di Francesco. It's not just injuries that have hindered El Shaarawy's development to this point, after all, but also a series of managers who did not know how to get the best out of him.

Pippo Inzaghi had been thrown in at the deep end when he took over Milan in 2014 and was too busy fighting fires to nurture a precocious young talent's development. His successor, Sinisa Mihajlovic, didn't even bother, deciding up front there could be no space in his vision of a hard-grafting team for such a seemingly decadent player.

Not until arriving at Roma did El Shaarawy find a steadier guiding influence in Luciano Spalletti. But Di Francesco appears to suit him even better. The former Sassuolo manager has a vision of football that relies fundamentally on pace and opportunism. During a chalkboard session with Gazzetta dello Sport in 2016, he spoke specifically about the traits he sought in a forward.

"They must always be attacking the goal, always running in that direction," Di Francesco said. "I want three guys up front who are living off the errors of our opponents. Against Juventus, Alex Sandro made a mistake and (Sassuolo forward Matteo) Politano didn’t get to the ball. Afterwards, he told me: 'I wasn’t expecting it.' An attacker must never say such a thing."

El Shaarawy could not have known that Rudiger would misjudge the cross that led to Roma’s second goal, but he made sure he was in the right place in case it happened. And if his searing speed allowed him to get there, then the ease with which he flicked the ball beyond Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was indicative of a player whose confidence was already soaring after a brilliant goal against Bologna at the weekend.

The teenage El Shaarawy was a player full of swagger; one who wore a Mohican before such things had become standard fare in Serie A and refused to cut it even when teammates like Zlatan Ibrahimovic threatened to do so for him. He's now 25 - not a kid anymore - and his hair is rather less ostentatious. But this was a night to make you believe that the old confidence might be returning.

Diego Perotti completed the 3-0 rout of Chelsea on the night, but it was El Shaarawy who left the game to a standing ovation. Conte will not take much satisfaction from knowing he saw this all coming.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)

El Shaarawy shows why Conte believed in him when no one else did
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