A Darwin Nunez goal proved to be the difference at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on Wednesday evening, as Benfica secured a place in the Champions League quarter-finals at the expense of Ajax.
The home side almost wholly dominated the game, but a resolute Benfica held firm before snatching a 75th minute winner.
Following a frantic start to the game, in which both teams pressed forward with real intent, Ajax’s star man Sebastien Haller found the back of the net. The former West Ham man finished off a lovely sweeping Ajax move started by Daley Blind, but as the ball was trickling over the line, the assistant referee lifted his flag and ruled the goal out for offside.
The non-goal heralded the start of a period of dominance for Ajax, as Dusan Tadic in particular began to pull strings. His delivery from the left flank was a real cause for concern for the visitors, who could only watch as a delightful cross from the former Southampton man was latched onto by Lisandro Martinez at the back post. The resulting header, however, skidded wide of the post.
Ajax continued to pepper the Benfica goal throughout the rest of the first half. Ryan Gravenberch saw a decent long range effort tipped over the crossbar by Odisseas Vlachodimos around the half hour mark, and Steven Berghuis scuffed a shot from near the penalty spot about five minutes later.
Despite not being able to find an opening, Ajax were on a different level from Benfica in the first half. The visitors could barely string two passes together and were very, very, very rarely able to get out of their own half, while the home side pressed well and showed some real quality in possession.
It was all one-way traffic at the start of the second half too, but Benfica looked much more composed under the pressure and were actually able to get into the final third a few times – something which seemed utterly impossible in the first half.
Unbelievably, the visitors nearly found the breakthrough. Jan Vertonghen latched onto a corner kick from the right flank but wildly miscued his header wide of the post. It was a much, much better chance than his resulting headed effort made it look.
Vertonghen’s chance proved to be a bit of wake up call for the home side, who promptly went up the other end and created their best goalscoring opportunity of the first hour of the game. As expected, the chance came after some neat interplay between Blind and Tadic, with the former chipping the ball beautifully into the path of Antony eight-yards from goal. The Brazilian’s resulting header, however, just looped over the bar.
Unexpectedly, Ajax ran out of ideas after that chance, and after 15 minutes of atrociously turgid football Benfica went up the other end and nicked a goal.
The goal came from top scorer Darwin Nunez, who got his head on the ball ahead of Andre Onana to flick home an Alex Grimaldo free kick from the right flank.
Ajax looked shellshocked and devoid of ideas after the goal, and the visitors were able to hold on for a famous win.
Andre Onana (GK) – 2/10 – Shocking bit of goalkeeping led to the Benfica goal.
Noussair Mazraoui (RB) – 4/10 – He was ok. Definitely could’ve helped Antony a bit with better overlapping runs.
Jurrien Timber (CB) – 4/10 – He didn’t have a whole lot of defending to do.
Lisandro Martinez (CB) – 5/10 – Had a half-decent chance to open the scoring in the first half.
Daley Blind (LB) – 6/10 – Linked up well with Tadic on the left flank.
Edson Alvarez (CM) – 5/10 – Sat in midfield and kept things ticking over.
Steven Berghuis (CM) – 4/10 – Got into the box well, but just lacked the quality to score the decisive goal.
Ryan Gravenberch (CM) – 6/10 – It’s very easy to see why he’s so highly rated. The kid’s seriously talented. Impressed in the first half but faded in the second.
Antony (RW) – 6/10 – Really does have ‘Liverpool’ written all over him. A typical Jurgen Klopp forward.
Sebastien Haller (ST) – 4/10 – Scored an offside goal, and then was completely marked out of the game by Benfica’s centre-backs.
Dusan Tadic (LW) – 6/10 – A real livewire for Ajax in the first half. Seemed to run out of ideas after the interval.
Davy Klaassen – N/A.
Brian Brobbey – N/A.
Mohammed Kudus – N/A.
Odisseas Vlachodimos (GK) – 5/10 – Made a good save to deny Gravenberch.
Gilberto (RB) – 6/10 – Struggled to get anywhere near Tadic in the opening 20 minutes, and then found his footing to keep the left midfielder quiet for most of the second half.
Nicolas Otamendi (CB) – 8/10 – Defended his box exceptionally well. Great stuff.
Jan Vertonghen (CB) – 8/10 – Marshalled the defence. Very strong performance from the former Tottenham man.
Alex Grimaldo (LB) – 8/10 – Enjoyed a proper battle out wide against Antony, and then set up the goal with a great set piece.
Rafa Silva (RM) – 6/10 – He put a shift in, but didn’t really showcase what he can do in the final third.
Julian Weigl (CM) – 7/10 – Held his own in front of the Benfica defence.
Adel Taarabt (CM) – 3/10 – Could not deal with the Ajax press and was hooked at half-time. Poor showing.
Everton (LM) – 4/10 – Tracked back, but did have much of a chance to get forward.
Goncalo Ramos (ST) – 5/10 – Like the rest of his attacking teammates, he tracked back well throughout.
Darwin Nunez (ST) – 8/10 – Worked so hard for the team and go his just rewards: a 26th goal of the season.
Soualiho Meïté – 7/10 – Sured up the Benfica midfield. Made a real impact.
Roman Yaremchuk – N/A.
Diogo Goncalves – N/A.
Paulo Bernardo – N/A.