In the last quarter of the hour you had to look closely to see that the men in the black shirts were really Benfica players. The Portuguese defended his 1-0 lead from the 77th minute with so much skill, so close to wasting time and with a strong defense that both Diego Simeone and the vast majority of Italian specialists at Catenaccio would be proud of the team.
Ajax Amsterdam simply couldn’t find a solution – and thus lost a match that was in fact intended to take a different path for extended periods. It could have led Ajax Amsterdam to the Champions League quarter-finals, not Benfica Lisbon.
Ajax coach Eric Ten Hag has long been known for letting his team play with a perfect possession system. On the best of days, there are few teams in the world who can run the ball besides the Dutch. The first 45 minutes of the second leg against Benfica may not have been one of their best days, but it was clear that Ajax’s complete control should see victory and, after 2-2 in the first leg, a place in the next round.
Ajax lacks integrity at the end – and that punishes Benfica
The Dutch had 69 percent of the ball until the end, scoring 16 shots in four in plain language. Especially in the first half, Ajax continued to make its way into the Benfica penalty area, and Sebastian Haller had already maneuvered the ball into the goal in the seventh minute, but his goal did not count because Dusan Tadic, who provided the decisive pass, was offside. However, Ten Hag did not play in the final positions enough, which is why goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos did not have any real difficulties – and in the second half he was also more difficult to hold.
Benfica started playing a little better and at least prevented most chances in their penalty area: Ajax could only advance with a header from winger Anthony in the 62nd minute, while Haller – with eleven goals – was the top scorer in the area. The current Champions League season – an unremarkable shadow. Instead, he scored his counterpart at the other end: Darwin Nunez, 22, and one of Europe’s most talented strikers, made it 1-0 to Benfica in the 77th minute with a free kick, and Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana sailed through the penalty area and carried the Uruguayan straight into the gate. . Nunez turned his head and made clear that whoever meets Benfica in the quarter-finals must be prepared for the powerful striker courted by half of Europe’s elite.
The fact that the Portuguese managed to qualify by a narrow margin was also due to the fact that Ajax remained the determined team based on the match until the last minute, but did not return to the dangerous areas. For Tin Hag and his team, who are still undefeated in the group stage, there has been no renewed success like reaching the semi-finals in 2019, although the Dutch were able to do so this time in terms of play only. On the other hand, Benfica defended its lead with a defensive line similar to Atlético and is likely to be an embarrassing opponent in the quarter-finals.
“We know we could have played a better match with the ball,” Benfica midfielder Julian Weigl said in an interview with Dazen after the match. The plan from the start was not to be very defensive and to get off the ball: “We already had a plan to get out of the pressure, but Ajax did it very well.” For the Portuguese, the first quarter-final since 2015/2016 was “a wonderful thing”, at which time Benfica were narrowly eliminated by Bayern Munich.
In the field of qualifying for the quarter-finals, the Portuguese are once again the underdogs, something Weigel is also aware of. Interestingly enough, after his hard-earned success in Amsterdam, he once again pointed to the true great strength of Benfica – matches at home on the pitch. Da Luz, Stadium of Light: “Any team that meets us has to survive in our stadium first.”