With just over a week to go until Halloween, Fikayo Tomori could not have imagined back in pre-season that he would be on the cusp of making his 10th Chelsea appearance of the campaign and his third in the Champions League.
Yet that is where the 21-year-old currently finds himself following an impressive start under new boss Frank Lampard, the man who took him on loan to Derby County last term and kept him as part of the senior squad at Stamford Bridge for 2019/20.
It is Lampard’s continuing faith and guidance that Tomori credits for his emergence as a regular Chelsea centre-back and member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for recent Euro 2020 qualifiers.
‘Coming into the season, I wanted to stamp my place in the team and the manager gave me an opportunity,’ said Tomori at the Johan Cruyff Arena as he and Lampard spoke at the customary pre-match press conference prior to our meeting with Ajax on Wednesday evening.
‘He’s carried on giving me opportunities. Even if I make mistakes or I’m not quite in the right position, he helps me out and he’s developed me a lot. He talks to me in training, so do the other players, and that helps me.
‘This season has been good for me so far. It’s gone better than I probably expected it would go but I’m working hard day-in, day-out trying to improve and help the team as much as I can. Getting the senior international call-up last month was great and now I just want to keep on going.’
Tomori expects a difficult encounter against last season’s Champions League semi-finalists, who have started this campaign with two wins from two so far. The suggestion was put to the Chelsea Academy graduate that the match will provide an indicator of where the Blues rank among Europe’s elite, although he was more cautious about taking each challenge as it comes.
‘It will be a very tight one,’ he claimed. ‘Both teams are in good form and it’s a big game in the group. Ajax is a great club with big history, a great stadium, so we’re expecting a tough game.
‘Games like these are where we can learn a lot but every game as a team we’re learning and every game throws up different challenges. So far, we’ve handled them well so hopefully tomorrow we can do the same.
‘We’re a young team and we always talk about playing in the Champions League because these are the kind of big, high-pressure games we want to be playing in. We’re relishing it and hope tomorrow we can go out there and put on a performance and put ourselves in a good position for the next round of the group games.’
Tomori was also asked about the threat of Dusan Tadic, the former Southampton striker who was recently included in the list of nominees for the Ballon d’Or, and offered an insight into how his threat would be dealt with.
‘Last year in the Champions League, Ajax did so well and he was a very big part of that,’ he said. ‘We know the kind of movements he likes to make. He’s not the typical number nine running in behind, he likes to play with the ball and link up with the whole team.
‘Sometimes as a defender you have to make a decision on the spot and go in to mark, or sometimes you have enough time to communicate to the midfielders in front of you. I’m sure the game will throw up those different situations and we’ll have to deal with it and that’s just part of the game.’
Four of our Academy youngsters started the weekend win over Newcastle United, with Reece James coming off the bench to make his Premier League debut, though Tomori acknowledges the experiences and advice of the senior members in the dressing room have been vital in integrating the whole squad as one.
‘For many of us, this is our first season in the Champions League and the whole team has been guiding us through games and training sessions,' he added. 'It’s been a good start for us, integrating the younger players with the more experienced players, and I think that we’re just going to get stronger.
‘Someone like Willian, who has played at the highest level not only in club football but internationally as well, is a big help. Having that sort of experience is vital for the team. He not only talks to us off the pitch but on the pitch he plays by example and shows what we need to do to get to the level he’s been at.’