‘Even in foot-golf, Zlatan is like: “We can’t lose, we can’t lose”‘: Fikayo Tomori on his manic AC Milan team-mate Ibrahimovic, learning defending from Maldini and the thrill of facing Liverpool in the Champions League
- Liverpool take on AC Milan in what could be another Champions League epic
- Wednesday’s clash will see Fikayo Tomori return to England in Milan colours
- Tomori spoke to Sportsmail about playing alongside striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic
- He also discussed working with Paolo Maldini and Olivier Giroud over in Italy
Fikayo Tomori did as advised and reported a couple of hours earlier than normal. Even so, he found the crowds assembling in the streets outside Milanello, with their giant flags, glowing flares and loud hailers.
Manager Stefano Pioli and his team lined-up to hear the roar of the Curva Sud ultras before boarding the team bus for the drive to Bergamo, to face Atalanta in the final game of the season.
The bus rolled slowly through the gates, out of the training complex, engulfed by plumes of red smoke and escorted by fans holding flares, windows rattling from the din, just in case any players were in the slightest doubt what it meant to secure a return the Champions League.
Fikayo Tomori will be at the heart of the AC Milan defence when they face Liverpool this week
The Rossoneri will travel to Anfield on Wednesday night for their Champions League clash
‘Motivating,’ smiles Tomori with a hint of understatement. ‘Different to anything I’ve seen in England. It was made clear from the moment I got here that we wanted to be back in the Champions League. Everyone knew it was really important.
‘A club like AC Milan hadn’t been in the Champions League for seven years. The team was in a good position and it went down to the last day, away from home against a strong side like Atalanta. Now, here we are.’
Milan beat Atalanta 2-0, ending last season with 13 points from five games – no goals conceded – to finish as runners up in Serie A, their best-placed finish for nine years.
Tomori, who joined on loan from Chelsea in January, became an instant hit with the Rossoneri for his pace and courage at the back, not to mention a vital goal in a 3-0 win at Juventus, springing high to head into the net.
Tomori has become a popular member in Milan’s team and fanbase over the last six months
It was their first success at Juve’s new stadium and the 23-year-old raised in Gravesend became the first Englishman to score for Milan since David Beckham.
‘I saw that stat,’ Tomori tells Sportsmail, via Zoom from Milanello. ‘It’s nice to see the famous players who have played here.
‘When you walk into Casa Milan, where the museum is, you see how many titles and trophies they’ve won.
‘Here at the training ground, you see photographs of those players lifting the Champions League and the Scudetto. There’s a sense of history everywhere you look. Walk around and you know you are part of a big club. You know you’re in a place drawn to success.’
Tomori required little encouragement to make his move from Chelsea permanent for £24million in June.
Tomori has become an instant hit with the Rossoneri for his pace and courage at the back
‘The only question was did they want me,’ he says, modestly. ‘Coming off the back of last season, I felt very comfortable here.
‘Everyone made me feel really welcome and happy. I was enjoying my football and felt like I was learning a lot. Most important, I was given an opportunity. The club trusted me to be on the pitch and that was so important.
‘When I knew Milan wanted me, I was pretty much there. To be given the chance to be part of this historic club, to play in the Champions League after helping them qualify, and to have that connection with the club, the manager and my team-mates, it felt really good. I feel at home here.’
He may live alone, 600 miles from friends and family, but he settled smoothly into the rhythms of Milan.
Tomori is living on his own out in Milan after arriving from Chelsea where he failed to make it
‘Life’s a bit slower and more chilled than in England, more laid back, the kind of life I enjoy. The weather is a lot better. People go for coffee after training, just chill and sit in the sun.’
His language skills are developing. ‘It’s going well,’ he nods. ‘Italian is the language of the pitch and I can understand everything.’ And he studies hard with the masters in the art of defending.
‘I’m trying to learn and improve. England is a very fast league, situations happen fast and you have to react whereas, in Italy, you are luring your opposition into specific positions where you know you can defend it well. That’s a big difference. It wasn’t something I was used to at first.
‘Italians are famed for their defenders and defensive structure. It’s definitely coached differently here. It’s about positioning yourself or reading where the ball is going, when to follow the striker, when to let the striker go, knowing if I go here then someone else has to go there, making sure all those cogs work together.
Tomori is being helped by AC Milan sporting director and a club legend in Paolo Maldini
‘It’s a really enjoyable environment and there’s a lot of people to help. The manager was a centre back. We’ve got Paolo Maldini at the club, the best defender of all time. We’ve got Daniele Bonera on the coaching staff who was a centre back for Milan, and played in the Champions League.’
Pioli has restored Milan’s self-esteem and, despite losing goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to Paris Saint-Germain, has a progressive team, sprinkled with experience and leaders, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The totemic Swede, 40 next month, scored on his return after four months out with a knee injury in a 2-0 win against Lazio on Sunday, as Pioli’s team made it nine points from three games.
‘He’s all about winning,’ says Tomori, fresh from a foot-golf victory in a team with Zlatan and Brahim Diaz, on loan from Real Madrid. ‘Even in foot-golf, he’s telling us, “we can’t lose, we can’t lose,” and we ended up winning.
Tomori (left) opened up on how competitive Zlatan Ibrahimovic (centre) is – even in foot-golf
‘Whether we’re playing mini games or 11-v-11 in training, or it’s a quick game of handball before training, he wants to win and when he does win, he lets everyone know about it. I think that spurs him on and the people around him.
‘You don’t want to be on Zlatan’s team and not pull your weight because if you don’t there’s going to be trouble. He’s such a big personality and his presence raises everyone’s game. He’s a winner and it transfers to the rest of the team.’
There is also a thread of Chelsea running through Milan. Tiemoue Bakayoko has returned on loan, while Olivier Giroud joined in July from Stamford Bridge. Giroud scored twice on his debut against Cagliari, and is back in training after eight days out following a positive Covid test.
‘We were speaking for a while before he came,’ says Tomori. ‘We knew it was in the works and I was waiting for it so I was really happy to see him.’
He expects more goals from Giroud and goals from Tammy Abraham, a close friend after many years together at Chelsea, who followed him to Serie A this summer with a £34m move to Roma.
Tomori (right) was joined in Milan by former Chelsea team-mate and striker Olivier Giroud (left)
‘When he first got to know about Roma he asked me about life in Italy and what I thought about the league,’ said Tomori. ‘I said, “I was here for six months and I signed permanently, that should tell you a lot”.
‘We spoke a lot and we’re still speaking, I’m trying to tell him to learn Italian properly. He wants to go with the flow and see how much he can pick up, and I’m trying to tell him to get a teacher in and get it going.
‘He’s enjoying it, and he’s started really well. Tammy is a goalscorer, he will score goals, hopefully not against Milan.’
Tomori knows when the pals go head to head for the first time, in Rome. ‘October 31st,’ he grins. Halloween. ‘Hopefully a scary night for him.’
Gareth Southgate has not called upon Tomori since November 2019 when he won his only cap against Kosovo, the last international before the pandemic, but, in media briefings this month, the England boss made mention of his fine form for Milan.
The defender is hoping for a recall to the England team after making his debut back in 2019
‘I haven’t had any direct contact,’ said Tomori. ‘It’s in the back of my mind but I try not to think about it too much.
‘I try to worry about what I’m doing here. If I play well and help the team everything will happen that needs to happen.’
Strong performances in a Champions League group also featuring Atletico Madrid and Porto will help his cause.
‘We’re excited,’ says Tomori. ‘Not a lot of teams wanted us in their group. We have a good squad, a young, vibrant squad. We fought to be in this position, playing among the elite.
‘We want to challenge ourselves and show just how good we are. I’m sure we can have a good run in the Champions League and we’re going to enjoy it.’
The centre back is hoping to help Milan create another Champions League epic with Liverpool
Milan, one of the great names of European football, back where they belong is something they are sure to acknowledge in Liverpool after the epic finals of 2005 and 2007.
‘I remember them both really well,’ says Tomori, who had just signed for Chelsea in 2005, at the age of seven.
‘My best friend was a Liverpool supporter. He was buzzing for that final in Istanbul and when AC Milan went 3-0 up with such a terrific team I was thinking, “he’s going to be upset at school tomorrow.”
‘The comeback made it such a great final. Disappointing for Milan but then 2007, Athens, it was the rematch and the revenge. One-one in the finals, you can say. This fixture has a lot of history in it for both clubs. They prefer the 2007 version in Milan, and I do, too.’
AC Milan will wear their new away kit for the first time at Liverpool. The gold Puma shirts have been inspired by the work of the club’s Foundation and linked to an initiative to raise cash for six social projects in six cities on six different continents.
The projects can be found in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Kolkata, Melbourne, Nairobi and Milan. Fans are invited to select their favourite and make donations via fondazionemilan.org/contest and the club will donate 50,000 euros to the most popular.
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