Nelson Verissimo’s side finished second in Group E to advance to the knockout rounds, while their opponents strolled through Group C without dropping a single point.
Many would believe to have correctly predicted the outcome of Group E before the first ball was kicked, but while Barcelona continued to under-perform under Ronald Koeman, Benfica took full advantage to pip the Catalan giants to second place behind Bayern Munich.
The Bavarians rode off into the sunset as expected, but Benfica claimed two vital wins over Barcelona and Dynamo Kiev – the 3-0 thumping of the former will live long in the memory – as well as claiming a goalless draw at Camp Nou to advance based on their head-to-head record.
The days of Jorge Jesus are long gone, though, as former Benfica youngster Verissimo seeks to steer his side through to the quarter-finals for the first time since 2015-16, but his first 10 games in the dugout have produced a mixed bag of results.
Indeed, the Portuguese giants enter the first leg on the back of a 2-2 league draw with Boavista and have won five of their 10 games under the 44-year-old’s tutelage so far, but they have not failed to score on their own turf in any competition since October.
Three group-stage finishes preceded Benfica’s progress to the last-16 stage this time around, but they ought to have their work cut out against one of only three sides to advance with a perfect record from their six group games.
Refusing to let continued speculation surrounding the Manchester United job affect him, Erik ten Hag continues to oversee stellar progress at Ajax, who simply swept aside the competition in Group C to finish top with 18 points to their name.
Forget Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, 10-goal striker and current Champions League top scorer Sebastien Haller sensationally scored in every one of his side’s group games – including four in their opening-day 5-1 thrashing of Sporting Lisbon – making his ill-fated stint at West Ham United seem like a distant memory.
Only Bayern Munich (22) notched up more goals than Ajax’s 20 in the group stage, and Ten Hag’s side enter the first leg having won each of their last 10 games in all competitions, although they had to rely on a late Jurrien Timber goal to get over the line against Willem II on Saturday.
Ajax are plying their trade in the knockout rounds for the first time since their sensational 2018-19 run to the semi-finals, and while the core of that team may have been broken up, not many would put it past the Dutch giants to act as the dark horses here.
The visitors’ 10-game winning run has also seen them concede just one goal away to PSV, and a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in 2020 represents their only loss from their last 21 Champions League games on the road – a streak that includes a 1-1 draw away to Benfica in 2018.
We say: Benfica 1-3 Ajax
A trip to Benfica will present a significantly sterner test than what Ajax have become used to in the Eredivisie, but the hosts are still finding their feet under Verissimo and cannot expect to emulate their group-stage win over Barcelona with ease.
Borussia Dortmund, Sporting and Besiktas were all no match for this free-scoring and defensively watertight Ajax outfit in the group stage, and we expect Ten Hag’s side to claim a healthy first-leg advantage on Wednesday.