Fikayo Tomori proud to carry the weight of expectations at AC Milan in Serie A title bid

It says a lot about Fikayo Tomori’s burgeoning profile that he was chosen by AC Milan for the club’s visit to Dubai this week.

The English centre-back, who signed permanently with the Serie A leaders from Chelsea last June having spent an initial six months on loan, is in the emirate for a couple of days as Milan participate in several fan events around Expo 2020.

On Tuesday morning, Tomori joined teammate Brahim Diaz for a roundtable with members of Milan’s Middle Eastern fan clubs – Bahrain and Kuwait were among those represented – before visiting the Expo 2020 site to put children through a special training session at the event’s AC Milan Academy. And afterwards, a Q&A gathering with 1,500 of the club’s UAE-based supporters.

Only 24, it underlines Tomori’s stature and standing within the 18-time Italian champions.

“For sure,” Tomori tells The National in between events at his Dubai hotel. “I feel the weight of the club, you can feel how important it is in the world, the history and the importance. And for me to be here it’s a great opportunity to represent the club.

“I feel like since I’ve been here, I’ve grown as a person as well. I’ve developed not only on the pitch, but off the pitch as well. So feeling really good.”

That personal progress extends to his mastery of the language already, with Tomori rather impressively conducting full interviews in Italian whenever needed. He’s embracing the culture, too, smiling that he has developed a taste for coffee – “trying to be a proper Italian” – even if he hasn’t quite forgotten his English roots with the odd cup of tea at home.

Born in Canada to Nigerian parents, Tomori moved to England with family when he was one, and came through the Chelsea academy to represent both the senior side and, last year, England’s national team.

He was disappointed, naturally, not to be included in Gareth Southgate’s latest squad – a surprise to many – but says: “There’s so many good players in my position, obviously I don’t have a right to be in the squad. Every single player, their dream is to play in the World Cup. So, with my eye on that at the end of the season, I know that the only way I’m going to get there is playing well for Milan.

“Try and win the league even more so I can get in. I’ve just got to keep on playing well for Milan, keep on working hard, and hopefully it will come.”

Tomori has been doing just that at Milan. He has become a mainstay of manager Stefano Pioli’s defence, playing 23 times in the league to help propel the club towards a first Scudetto in more than a decade.

With eight matches remaining, Milan sit top of the table, three points clear of Napoli and six ahead of reigning champions Inter Milan, who have played a game fewer. The two city rivals meet next month in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final; the first encounter finished 0-0.

And, even if Tomori emphasises that the club must continue to take it “game-by-game” in their chase for the domestic title, he confirms the determination within the camp to deliver burns bright.

Napoli 0 AC Milan 1 – in pictures

“There’s a lot,” he says. “A lot. At the beginning of the season, if you said coming into April we’d be top of the league and you’ve got the semi-final of the Coppa Italia second leg to go, I think we’d fancy our chances.

“We know where we are, we know this is a crucial part of the season. And that pressure, that’s on us at the moment. We’re just fuelling that and storing it and using it like a fire in our belly to go for every single game.

“Obviously it’s very important and we know that every single game counts. So we’re just trying to take our time, not get too ahead of ourselves, not get too excited. Just stay calm, keep playing our football, keep doing the right things and then, hopefully at the end of the season with this position we’re in, we can have something really big to celebrate.

“Because we found out that no Milan team have won the Coppa Italia and Serie A in the same season, so again that’s something else. Why can’t we be the first team to do that? So little things like that are keeping us going.”

And, as he stresses, Milan’s reputation demands it.

“With the club you feel like there’s so much pride and so much will and want to win,” Tomori says. “As players, that’s the same for us: we have that sensation, that feeling in the stomach where you feel like you’re so close to something, so that’s going to be a driving factor for us for sure.

“We have a young team – we have players that have obviously won leagues and stuff before – so this is an opportunity for us to take this step. Not have people say, ‘They didn’t win because they’re a young team’ or whatever.

“Taking that step, bridging that, saying we’re young but we’re ready to win. And the team is ready to win.”

The balance between young and old has been key to Milan’s success. At the other end of the age spectrum to Tomori sits Zlatan Ibrahimovic, integral to the club’s last Scudetto in 2011 (he also won two with Juventus and three with Inter), now aged 40 and back in his second stint at AC. In tandem with 35-year-old Olivier Giroud, the Swede and the Frenchman have chipped in with 16 league goals.

That experience, as well as expertise, should prove crucial during the next two months.

“Obviously we have Zlatan, who’s always driving every single person,” Tomori says. “We have young players that haven’t played in the Champions League or haven’t won the league, so having somebody like him keep everyone focused and driven and always giving constant reminders … constant reminders is something this team needs and something we’re taking on board and learning from.

“It’s definitely a good mix. Because as young players we have that vibrancy, that energy, that enthusiasm. And then the older players have the experience, they have the calm heads, they know the right words to say at the right time. We’ve got a good blend and I think people are seeing that.”

More specifically to him, Tomori credits also Simon Kjaer for his stellar start at Milan; the Denmark captain has aided more than most the transition to life in Italy and the league, even if he is out for the season having suffered a serious knee injury in December.

Tomori says the team want to win the domestic double in part for Kjaer, in what would represent the dream denouncement to the former’s first full season at the San Siro.

“If we have 10 wins: eight in the league and two in the Coppa Italia, that would be perfect,” Tomori says. “Easier said than done, and football’s not perfect, but that’s what we’re hoping for, what we’re gunning for.

“I know the Mister [Pioli] has been here for two and a half years, so that’s what he’s been working towards. Me, for a year and a half. That’s what we’ve all been working towards, try and get some trophies, return some glory back to the club.

“But we know the situation we’re in, we know how precarious, how important it is. We’re trying to stay calm, trying to use that pressure for energy and fuel to push us towards the end of the season. We’re all united in that.”