ROME — Over the space of four days, Stephan El Shaarawy has transformed himself into one of Italy’s most in-form strikers.
First came a sensational volley in a 1-0 victory over Bologna in Serie A on Saturday. Then came two more goals worth admiring in Roma’s 3-0 win over Premier League champion Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday.
El Shaarawy scored his first against Chelsea with a powerful blast from the edge of the area, and then used a timely touch of class for the second.
“It’s the kind of night that you never forget — for the rest of your life,” El Shaarawy said.
For a player who made his Serie A debut nearly a decade ago, 55 days after his 16th birthday, El Shaarawy appears to have finally rediscovered the consistency he displayed before a series of injuries nearly derailed his career at AC Milan.
Last week, El Shaarawy celebrated his 25th birthday.
“Special is the right word,” he said. “It’s been an intense week, full of excitement.”
After a brief loan spell at Monaco, El Shaarawy joined Roma in January 2016 on another loan that then became permanent for what amounted to a deal valued at 14 million euros ($16 million) — which now seems like a relative bargain.
El Shaarawy was given limited playing time with Italy at last year’s European Championship under current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, so it had to be especially sweet to score against Conte’s squad.
Three years ago, Conte publicly questioned El Shaarawy’s commitment, saying he had “to decide if wants to remain a normal player or become a great one.”
But new Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco, who is a bit less direct than Conte, has found different ways to motivate El Shaarawy, for instance moving the diminutive forward from the left to the right wing.
“His offensive qualities were never in question, but now he’s added a new dimension by contributing defensively,” Di Francesco said.
“He’s doing what he’s been asked to,” the coach added. “He’s not remaining isolated for long periods. He’s getting involved in the play more.”
Nicknamed “The Pharaoh” or “El Sha” for short, El Shaarawy has an Egyptian father and an Italian mother. He was born and raised in Italy.
El Shaarawy’s recent form should land him a spot in Italy’s lineup for the upcoming World Cup playoff against Sweden.
It also solidified his status at Roma, where he has taken over the position that belonged to Mohamed Salah before the Egypt international transferred to Liverpool.
El Shaarawy’s contributions have also lightened the load for Roma center forward Edin Dzeko, who led Serie A last season with 29 goals. Dzeko still attracts defenders inside the area, and his slight touch set up El Shaarawy’s opener against Chelsea.
For Roma as a whole, the victory may have marked a turning point after years of disappointment and embarrassment in Europe.
“We said in the dressing room before the match that we have not had many great nights in the Champions League, but a few where we have been battered,” Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi said.
De Rossi, who took over Roma’s captaincy when Francesco Totti retired at the end of last season, was referring to a 7-1 rout by Manchester United in the 2007 quarterfinals and a home defeat by the same score to Bayern Munich in the 2014 group stage.
“I remember the win over Chelsea 10 years ago (3-1 in the 2008 group stage), of course,” De Rossi added. “But we don’t win matches like this so we can take photos and put them on the bedside table, but to push on from this.”
Not many observers picked Roma to advance from a group featuring Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, which was runner-up twice over the last four years. But Roma now leads Group C with eight points, one more than Chelsea. Atletico is next with three points and Azerbaijani club Qarabag is last with two points.
“Now we are in a strong position in the group,” De Rossi said, “and we deserve to be, too.”
More AP Champions League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/ChampionsLeague
Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf