Ajax knocked out of Champions League after 0-1 loss to Benfica
Ajax was eliminated from the Champions League, after losing at home to Benfica by a score of 0-1. That put the Portuguese team through on aggregate 3-2, three weeks after the two teams ended in a 2-2 draw in Lisbon. The second leg of the Round of 16 was played before a sold-out crowd at the Johan Cruijff ArenA in Amsterdam.
Things went wrong for Ajax in a crucial home game again, just like in recent years against Tottenham Hotspur, Atalanta, Valencia, AS Roma and Getafe. In the knockout phase of the Champions League, the Amsterdam team has not won a home game since 1996.
The defeat against Benfica was a hard blow for Ajax, which won all six group matches in the Champions League this season. The home team played a strong first half and did not give up a single chance throughout the match, except for the goal in the 78th minute when Darwin Núñez took advantage of a misjudgment by goalkeeper André Onana.
“It’s very tough. It’s difficult to talk,” Dušan Tadić said after the match. “We didn’t deserve to lose.”
This year, the playing of the Champions League anthem seemingly turned Ajax into a team that could compete with many renowned teams from Europe. Anyone who saw Erik ten Hag's team play against Benfica before halftime would not likely imagine that the Amsterdam team and Eredivisie leader would have needed a last minute miracle to defeat the likes of RKC Waalwijk and SC Cambuur recently. Go Ahead Eagles even managed to beat Ajax at the end of February.
For the most part, Ajax played well against Benfica, especially during the first half, but that coveted opening goal did not materialize before halftime. That was also to the credit of the Portuguese team, who used so many players to defend that it was difficult for the home team to find a free man near the goal. Still Ajax had their chances. An apparent goal by Sébastien Haller was rightly overturned because Dušan Tadić was offside. Steven Berghuis shot wide when in a promising spot, and goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos just barely got a few fingers on a strike by Ryan Gravenberch.
Benfica also did not get much further than defense in the second half and did not give goalkeeper André Onana a single moment of distress, that is until the Portuguese team was awarded a free kick near the corner in the 78th minute. Onana completely misjudged the high ballm and Darwin Núñez was able to head the ball into the empty goal.
Tadić said he did not blame Onana. Ajax failed as a team to score, and lapsed in one critical moment. “It’s really tough because I think we were the better team. In Europe it’s a lot about set pieces and counter attacks,” Tadić said. He added that Benfica did a good job stopping the counter attacks, but they found their opportunity with one set piece to take the lead near the end of the match.
Trainer Ten Hag reacted immediately, bringing two attacking players onto the pitch: Brian Brobbey and Davy Klaassen. With them, Ajax no longer came close to equalizing, also because Benfica showed once again that the Portuguese can simulate injuries and stretch time like no other.
Reporting by ANP.