Milan: AC Milan has had a long list of great defenders, including the likes of Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Alessandro Costacurta and Franco Baresi.
Fikayo Tomori could soon find himself on that list as well if he helps Milan end their lengthy wait for the Champions League trophy.
The Rossoneri are second only to Real Madrid with seven titles in Europe’s premier club competition, but haven’t lifted the trophy since 2007.
Doesn't get any bigger
First, though, Tomori and his teammates have to get through a semifinal against city rivals Inter Milan, which has been dubbed the “Euroderby” in Italy.
“It being a derby in the semifinal, it doesn’t really get much bigger than that,” Tomori said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of the first leg against Inter on Wednesday.
Milan got to this point by beating another Italian team in the quarterfinals, recording a 2-1 aggregate victory over Napoli — shortly after beating the southern club 4-0 in Serie A.
Exciting style of play
Napoli recently clinched the Italian league title with five rounds to spare and the team have drawn plaudits across Europe for their exciting style of play, so those victories have given Milan “a lot of confidence,” Tomori said.
“We know we can go against the best teams in Europe and I think now we can be regarded as one of the best teams in Europe,” the 25-year-old Tomori said.
The defender could hardly have hoped for a better start to life at Milan. The England international joined on loan from Chelsea in January 2020 and swiftly established himself as a regular in the heart of the Rossoneri defence — prompting Milan to make the move permanent.
He helped Milan win the Serie A title in his first full season and has been key to its Champions League run, earning a man-of-the-match award for his performance in the 0-0 draw at Tottenham that secured the Rossoneri’s progression to the quarterfinals.
“Winning the ‘scudetto’ was amazing. I really got to see what it’s like to win here,” Tomori said. “I think as a squad, me personally, everyone’s kind of grown and we’ve got better as a team, everyone’s got better individually. I think we’re all really focused on and trying to get Milan back to where it was before, where we were before. And we’ve started off really well. Hopefully, now we can.”
The other semifinal pits 14-time champion Real Madrid against another juggernaut in Manchester City, who are on course for the treble of the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup.
Whoever win that matchup will be deemed the favourite to lift the trophy, with the Milan clubs having only recently made their way back to the top level.
“People are going to obviously speculate and say what they want to say,” Tomori said. “Against Napoli a lot people counted us out. Even now, people will be counting us out. Should we reach the final — hopefully, we’ll reach the final — there’s going to be people counting us out again.
“But I think with this team we’ve shown a lot of times that when people count us out we manage to get through that. … We know that when we play with intensity, energy and quality, then we’re a match for anyone.”
If Milan go on to lift the Champions League, one player who won’t get a medal is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
That trophy is one of the few that has eluded the veteran forward, who has won a slew of domestic titles in an extraordinary career with some of the top European clubs.
Ibrahimovic has been recovering from surgery and was left off Milan’s Champions League squad. But Tomori believes a lot of the credit for Milan’s success is down to the 41-year-old Swede.
“The way he talks, the way he sees the game, the demands that he puts on himself, the demands he puts on those around him, the team — he’s always demanding the best,” Tomori said. “Definitely if we didn’t have him in the team, if we didn’t have him around the changing room, things would have been different.
“He’s always talking to players individually, he’s always motivating and making sure everyone’s doing or getting the most out of themselves. We have such a young team, a lot of young players, so having someone like him to kind of show you the way … has been great.”
Another Milan icon who has helped Tomori personally is Maldini. Nicknamed “Il Capitano,” Maldini spent his entire career at Milan and helped them win five Champions League trophies.
Maldini retired in 2009 but returned to Milan as a director five years ago. Tomori acknowledged being a bit star-struck when he first met the former defender.
“I remember I was just kind of looking. I never thought I’d be in the situation where I’m talking to Paolo Maldini,” he said. “Obviously being a defender that was just amazing. And ever since I’ve come, he’s always given me help, always given me advice on where he thinks I should be.
“He’s the kind of person, when he says something to you, you’re taking it on board. He’s been a great help and I just try and take as much as I can from him, try to speak to him as much as I can.”
Milan are also fighting with Inter for a top four finish in Serie A and a spot in next year’s Champions League.
Can't give an inch
Milan are currently fifth but only two points behind Inter and three below third-place Lazio, whom they beat on Saturday. Moreover, just eight points separate second-place Juventus and Roma in seventh.
“There’s so many good teams, it’s so competitive,” Tomori said. “And we know that we can’t give an inch, every game is important.”
And if Tomori had to choose between beating Inter in the semifinals or to a top-four finish?
Tomori exhaled deeply before replying.
“Obviously beating Inter in any capacity is good for us,” he said. “I mean, I’d say both … we want to do both and we know that we can do both.”
Burj Khalifa in red and black colours
On Monday night, the Burj Khalifa was lit up in red and black, joining AC Milan’s “A light that never fades” campaign, designed to accompany Rossoneri fans until the kick-off of the first leg of the Champions League semifinals on Wednesday.
“A light that never fades” is a campaign that rallies the over 550 million Milanisti fans worldwide, asking them to participate in the wait for a special game with an activation that will allow fans to light up their homes, cities and digital spaces with a red light that — mixing with the darkness of the night — from Milan will reach all corners of the world.
By lighting up in red and black, the Burj Khalifa has contributed to spreading even more strongly the passion that is fuelling the anticipation for this special match for the club and their fans. If the Burj Khalifa has acted as a beacon globally, illuminating Dubai’s night with the colours of AC Milan, the city of Milan is also pervaded by a red and black light locally.
Starting from piazza Duomo, the heart of Milan, where a luminous installation representing the AC Milan crest will lend itself to a photo-worthy moment for the thousands of Rossoneri fans, who will descend into the city for the match. Even the San Siro stadium is participating in the Euroderby’s wait, lighting up in red to brighten up the Milanese night.