Benfica stunned Ajax to progress through to the Champions League quarter-finals thanks to a second leg victory in Amsterdam.
The game’s decisive moment came 14 minutes from time when striker Darwin Nunez headed home from Alex Grimaldo’s free-kick to separate the two sides. The game was finely poised after last month’s 2-2 draw in Lisbon – when Ajax twice blew the lead to draw.
The Dutch league leaders were the favourites to reach the quarter-finals after a brilliant match in Lisbon last month, having twice led and been the dominant side throughout despite the game being drawn.
Here are the five main talking points from the second leg in the Netherlands as Erik Ten Hag’s Ajax were eliminated from Europe.
Uruguayan striker Darwin Nunez had already netted 25 goals this campaign for Benfica and had been the club’s standout player. The 22-year-old has been linked to some of Europe’s biggest clubs due to his potential.
He had already starred in this season’s Champions League and most notably in the group stage victory over Barcelona, where the striker bagged a brace in the 3-0 win over the Catalan side. But his headed goal in Amsterdam was the biggest moment of his stint at the club yet.
Signed in a notable £20million deal from Spanish second division side Almeria in 2020, he has now blossomed into one of Europe’s top attacking talents.
Ajax have long had a reputation as a club for playing free-flowing attacking football and once again this season they have been the great entertainers in the Champions League. Prior to this encounter, they have scored two or more goals in each of their seven matches in the competition this campaign.
Their 22 goals in the Champions League prior to Tuesday meant that they were, somewhat incredibly, averaging over three goals per game amid that consistency. Yet they did run into frustrations against a deep-lying Benfica side.
The Portuguese outfit had already kept seven clean sheets in this season’s competition – including qualifiers – and the only goals they conceded in the group stages were against Bayern Munich. Benfica showed impressive defensive discipline and concentration throughout.
Benfica will look back at participation in the Champions League knockout stages as a target reached, with their deserved group stage progression past Barcelona impressive. Yet this season is an otherwise forgettable one for the Portuguese giants.
The Lisbon club sacked boss Jorge Jesus earlier this campaign despite his European results, and they are a mile off the pace domestically. They are six points off champions and city neighbours Sporting Lisbon and a whopping 12 points off league leaders Porto.
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Benfica were also eliminated from both domestic cup competitions by their two great rivals but it is their league position which will alarm their fans the most. They are on course to finish third and not qualify automatically for next season’s Champions League group stages – presenting several challenging qualifiers to reach the money-spinning stage of the tournament.
They will savour this cup run as it lasts.
One of the most impressive aspects about this Ajax side in recent years is how they do not change their playing style or compromise when playing in Europe. Ten Hag employs the same formation and style of play in the Champions League as he does in the Eredivisie.
Tuesday night’s game carried on their record in this season’s competition of playing a fluid 4-2-3-1 system for each of their games. This is the setup that they deploy for the vast majority of domestic matches and is replicated throughout the club – with the pragmatism to switch to 4-3-3.
Yet the most important part of this system is not so much the shape of the system but the instruction to the players. They remain devoted to their philosophy of passing, moving and pressing – not afraid to push-up and hussle the opposition in their own half.
Benfica’s miserable away record in the Champions League always was likely to ensure that, despite being level after the opening leg, that the odds were stacked against them to progress.
The Portuguese giants had won just one of their last 11 away matches in the competition, a run dating back to 2018 going into tonight's game. Furthermore, they have triumphed just once on their travels in a game past the qualification stage since 2016 – despite being regulars in the group stages.
While Benfica were never likely to be a major contender to win the competition this season, they may feel that this was an opportunity missed due to the closeness of the tie.
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