Soccer

AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori returns to Chelsea as England’s center of attention ahead of World Cup squad deadline

When Fikayo Tomori touches down in London, the eyes of a nation will be on him. It is not just that this is a champion returning to these shores, going back to the club that made him with a point to prove. In his absence, the AC Milan center back has become the cause célèbre of the English national team, the man who can save the Three Lions in Qatar just as he was a cornerstone of the side that brought the Scudetto back to the red and black half of Milan.

No pressure then, Fikayo.

The great expectations placed on him, however, are seemingly nothing compared to high standards that he has for himself. When asked why it was that he was not getting his opportunities with England on the basis of his form in a Milan shirt, there is no attempt to lay the blame anywhere other than at himself. 

“Coming into this season, I don’t think I have started this one as I would have wanted to,” he said in a roundtable interview.  

“It is a bit difficult. You’ve got to try and get up to the rhythm and speed of things, and I think that is the case with me and knowing the way I can play and the level that I’ve set for myself personally. There were certain, I wouldn’t say games, but maybe moments in games where I know I could have done better. 

“I’m obviously critical of myself and critical of those moments. I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I probably should have done better.’ That’s just how I am as a person and it is down to me to try and correct that. I feel that now I am getting back to those levels.”

That is not an assessment that is necessarily shared by more seasoned Serie A observers. For some the most forthright criticism they can really offer is that Tomori is not quite as good yet as he was last season. That of course was the year when he was a standout performer in a youthful AC Milan side that held their nerve against more experienced rivals in Inter Milan and Napoli, capturing the title for the first time in 11 years with a record points total to boot.

It was also the year that Italy fell for Tomori. Scarcely a month would pass by without a legend of yesteryear singing the praises of the man Milan had plucked from the fringes of the Chelsea squad. Alessandro Nesta purred over the speed of the 24-year-old. Franco Baresi hailed his personality and strength. Fabio Capello said he was the future of Milan.

Though he might believe he could have performed better this season, Tomori will return to Stamford Bridge a much-changed defender from the one who left, honed not just by facing some of Europe’s top strikers on the pitch but also coming up against legends in training. 

“I think I’m more confident. I’ve had more games under my belt, so I feel like I’m better,” he said. “I’m probably more concentrated during the games and I’ve learned different parts of defending and how to be in the structure of a team, especially the way our manager wants us to play. I’ve improved a lot. I feel like I’m overall more confident and more comfortable in myself as well.

“I think I’m cleverer. Being on the pitch more helps that but little fouls or positioning yourself in a way that makes the striker think. Those kind of things have made me a bit cleverer.

“Defending different kind of players that are probably nastier but obviously training with Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] you can’t really be too timid because if you are then he’ll score 10 goals or whatever it is in training. You have to be a bit tougher, nasty in a sense.

“Playing in training against him, it makes you a better player from the experience he has and the quality he has, still at his age. When I first came, I didn’t really know how he would be around the training ground but he was definitely someone you could see played at a good level, against the world’s best, because of the confidence he has in himself and his own quality. He doesn’t only talk about it but he backs it up and you can see why he played at such a high level for all those years.”

Ibrahimovic, still sidelined after knee surgery, won’t be on the pitch to test Chelsea on Wednesday night in the Champions League groups stage battle. Rafael Leao though should offer quite the examination for Graham Potter’s side. The Portuguese forward was last season’s Serie A MVP with 11 goals and 10 assists. A 23-year-old picked up for good money (€35 million to be precise) but now worth far more, he is the archetype of this Milan side. The Blues will need no reminding of his quality after registering an interest in him last summer. Like Tomori, he seems to be on the fast track to great things.

“When I first came … my friends were asking me which other players I liked and I kept saying, ‘That Leao guy is really good. He is strong, fast and skillful’. I think the thing for me was that I didn’t think he realized how good he was or could become. 

“I think now, especially off the back of last season, he is starting to grow and realize what he can do. He is realizing how he can hurt opponents and hurt his direct opponent. I think people in not only Milan but now Serie A and around Europe are really starting to take notice of him. I think he is doing amazing for us. He is a match winner for us by creating and scoring goals and lighting up the game. He has been amazing and hopefully he can continue that on Wednesday.”

Of course, Milan supporters who remember the glory days of the 1990s and 2000s would not settle for just the Scudetto that Leao, Tomori and company won last season. This is a club with great pedigree, particularly in the European Cup that they have won eight times, a tally bettered only by Real Madrid. Stefano Pioli’s side are no one’s idea of favorites for a competition that hasn’t had an Italian winner in over a decade. But they top Group E after two games and could deliver a serious statement of intent with a win in west London.

“For us, we just try to take it game by game,” said Tomori. “Whether it is Serie A, Copa Italia or the Champions League. Obviously, there’s history in the Champions League with Milan winning it. Of course, we would like to be part of that history. There’s a lot of good teams in the Champions League but we approach every game to win whatever competition it is. If we continue that, who know what can happen?

“Last season not a lot of people had us down to win the Scudetto but we knew the quality that we had in ourselves. We worked hard, we took it game by game and we ended up winning it. If we approach our league and Champions League games like that then who knows where it can take us? I don’t think we can really put a ceiling on ourselves. We know how good we are and we can surprise a lot of teams, I am sure of that.”

If Milan depart Stamford Bridge victorious it will not only heighten the pressure on Chelsea, who would have one point from their first three group games, but England manager Gareth Southgate, who left Tomori out of the squad for the draw with Germany in the Nations League. The likes of Rio Ferdinand and Gary Lineker professed themselves baffled at the snub at a time when Harry Maguire was allowed to play himself into form. Tomori is more sanguine and revealed that Southgate shared Milan head coach Pioli’s assessment of where he could improve.

“Every player wants to play and you want to be involved but it’s an honor for me to be selected. I know now that I’m not quite there, I’ve still got some stuff to do to get myself in the frame to be there for the World Cup, so hopefully I can do that,” he said. “There are a lot of games between now and then for me to try and get in that squad or hopefully be in a position where I can get some minutes on the pitch as well. 

“[Southgate and I] spoke. It’s different in the England setup because when we have time together it is very limited. But obviously, there are things in Milan where the manager wants me to be in certain positions or do certain things that I need to try and remember to do on the pitch and work on off the pitch to make myself a better player and to try and be better in the structure of the team. 

“Those things I spoke to Gareth about and he agreed, so I know I have to try and improve those things and, from there, we will see what happens.”

The easy solution for Tomori might be to pack in his Italian grand tour and return to the Premier League. Assessments of Jadon Sancho, Jude Bellingham and even Tammy Abraham often seem to assume that the reason to leave England is to return at a higher level but Tomori does not easily fit that archetype. He quickly settled in Milan and won as much admiration for his grasp of the language as he did his footballing accomplishments. He seems to enjoy having his friends over to visit rather than travel back to England.

“Honestly, I haven’t thought about England to be honest or too far into the future, whether I’m going to stay here the rest of my career or go back to England,” he said. “I just take it game by game, year by year. Right now, I signed a new contract and I think that signals how happy I am, how comfortable I am and where I see myself for the next few years. The Premier League is the best league in the world, but for me right now, being at AC Milan and in Serie A, learning the trade as a defender, is where I’m comfortable and is what’s best for me. I’m really happy here.”

AC Milan will host a special “From Milan to Many” fan event at BOXPARK Wembley in London with Rossoneri legends Alessandro Nesta and Daniele Massaro on 4 Oct from 7pm. The event is part of the AC Milan Trophy Tour in partnership with Emirates, an initiative that sees the Club take the 2021/22 Scudetto Trophy on the road to meet Rossoneri fans around the world.

London will be the first stop of the AC Milan Trophy Tour, a global tour in partnership with the Rossoneri’s long-standing partner Emirates that will see the club take the 2021/22 Scudetto Trophy on the road to meet Rossoneri fans around the world. Following London, the tour will continue in New York City, where the Rossoneri will host another fan event at JAY-Z’s exclusive 40/40 Club in Manhattan to coincide with the Serie A clash between AC Milan and Juventus.


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