With the tie delicately poised after a 2-2 draw in the first leg, Ajax and Benfica reconvene for the second leg of their Champions League last-16 tie in Amsterdam on Tuesday night.
The Dutch giants warmed up for this encounter with a 3-2 league success at Cambuur over the weekend, while the visitors had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Vizela.
Still refusing to let Manchester United speculation distract him from the task at hand, Ajax general Erik ten Hag has become accustomed to seeing Sebastien Haller make the net ripple, but the ex-West Ham United man surprisingly turned the ball into the wrong net at the Estadio da Luz.
Haller’s own goal came eight minutes after Dusan Tadic had given Ajax the upper hand in the tie, and while Haller only took three minutes to rectify his mistake and put his side 2-1 up on the night, Benfica salvaged a draw through Ukraine’s Roman Yaremchuk.
The Champions League hangover appeared to hit Ajax hard as they followed up that 2-2 draw with a shock loss to Go Ahead Eagles, but they have since won three on the bounce across the Eredivisie and KNVB-Beker – scoring eight goals in the process.
The last time that Ajax managed to make it out of the group stages in the Champions League saw them produce that dazzling run to the semi-finals in 2018-19, and home comforts should certainly serve them well in their bid to repeat or better that feat this time around.
Indeed, Ten Hag’s side head into the second leg having won each of their last seven at home in all competitions – conceding just twice and scoring at least three goals in every game – while Benfica’s compatriots Sporting Lisbon know first-hand about the Dutch giants’ penchant for prolific performances on home turf.
Taking a leaf out of their opponents’ book, Benfica developed an affinity for goal-laden performances in and around their first-leg draw with Ajax, but Nelson Verissimo’s 10 men could only find the back of the net once against Vizela on Friday night.
After Adel Taarabt had been sent for an early bath with just seven minutes on the clock, Benfica went 1-0 down to Cassiano’s strike on the 65-minute mark before 20-year-old Henrique Araujo – who has caught the eye at youth level this term – came off the bench to equalize 10 minutes later.
While such a result – which extended Benfica’s unbeaten run to seven matches in all tournaments – can be viewed positively given Taarabt’s early sending off, ending their six-match streak of scoring at least two per game was an unwelcome statistic for the Portuguese giants, who have not made it past the last 16 of the Champions League since 2015-16.
Not since a 3-0 Taca de Portugal defeat to Porto back in December have Benfica failed to find the back of the net in a competitive fixture, but only one of their last 14 away Champions League matches – excluding qualifying – has ended in victory, and Ajax can be pretty unforgiving on their own turf.
Furthermore, the 2-2 draw in the first leg stretched Benfica’s winless run against Ajax to seven games since their inaugural 3-1 success in 1969, with Ten Hag overseeing a 1-0 home win against the Portuguese giants in October 2018 thanks to a last-minute Noussair Mazraoui effort.
Ajax Champions League form:
Ajax form (all competitions):
Benfica Champions League form:
Benfica form (all competitions):
We say: Ajax 3-1 Benfica (Ajax win 5-3 on aggregate)
Ajax need no lessons in putting the ball in the back of the net at home – whether that be against domestic or continental counterparts – and Ten Hag’s side can pick Benfica off as the Portuguese side go in search of goals themselves.
While Darwin Nunez is always a threat in and around the box, we cannot back Benfica with any real confidence even with the fit-again Yaremchuk named in the squad, and Ajax will enter this battle as the firm favourites to book their quarter-final tickets.