|Savouring the moment...El Shaarawy|
It hasn't taken much imagination to write of Milan's problems recently. They have done all the work for journalists and commentators. From the non-signing of Tevez in January to a dependable ability to lose to the big clubs, Milan have simply not acquitted themselves like Italian champions. It as if they have inherited disgrace from their owner Silvio Berlusconi, whose politics are as incoherent and egregious as Milan's left-back position--though Djamel Mesbah may take exception to that comment after some of his competent performances.
To say until the 76th minute on Saturday Milan were as incisive as Francesco Totti would be during a parliamentary debate is an exaggeration. After all, Totti has some background in politics, famously inspiring the slogan meno tasse per Totti (less taxes for Totti), a variation of meno tasse per tutti (less taxes for all), the famous slogan of Berlusconi's Forza Italia! party in the early 2000s. On Saturday, Milan were blunt, boring, and bad, seemingly content to let Antonio Conte's far from sterling Juventus side leisurely jog to the title.
In the first half, Massimo Ambrosini was doing his best babe in the woods routine: unseemly not just because there was no time for it, but also because he is well past the time for it. On the other hand, Clarence Seedorf may have done better to have stayed home in a robe, eating from a tub of ice-cream, ruing his loss of speed in front of a television beaming the 2002-03 Champions League highlights.
No one told Stephan El Shaarawy of the suicidal master plan though. The 19-year-old, with his Sonic the Hedgehog haircut, showed quick feet, running and running in the second half, collecting kilometers as if they were golden rings. He had little support for long periods of time, but when Massimiliano Allegri finally brought on Maxi Lopez, the wrong Argentinean striker to have been signed in January as far as many Milan fans are concerned, the front-line took a more discernible shape. The goal came in the 77th minute when El Shaarawy, Il Faraone, the half-Italian, half-Egyptian teenager who has bewitched many before Udinese goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, unleashed an awkward shot from a tough angle outside the area. Handanovic parried the ball into the path of Lopez who slotted it in.
The goal vindicated two things. First, it proved beyond any doubt that Lopez can score when it seems impossible not to. That alone makes him more reliable in front of goal than Robinho, who couldn't hit any one of a herd of sedated, wading elephants from twenty centimeters with a ball. Secondly, it proved beyond any doubt that Milan can actually score without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (he is serving a three-match ban for warming Salvatore Aronica's ear).
The winner was a beautiful inverse of the equalizer. Lopez collected the ball out wide, passed to El Shaarawy who powerfully flicked the ball past Handanovic. In the space of eight minutes, Milan had staggered Udinese, condemning them to their first loss at home of the season. In the space of eight minutes, Milan had leaped to the top of the table, even if maybe temporarily (Juve have two games in hand).
The man of the moment, of the match, was El Shaarawy. He had played exquisitely when he needed to, and pragmatically when he needed to, tracking back to make solid tackles. The victory achieved without Alessandro Nesta, Alberto Aquilani, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Ibrahimovic, Pato and others, seemed like a pivotal point of the season. Milan have been battered by big teams all season, but just before the Champions League tie against Arsenal on Wednesday, they stretched out of quicksand a hand of defiance. Despite playing drudgingly for most of the game against Udinese, Milan got the three points.
It is games like this that decide seasons. It is games like this that make stars. February just got a little warmer for Milan fans.