Ajax – Benfica: Ajax Squander Dominance To Scupper Dreams Of A Fairytale Campaign (0-1)
On home turf at the Amsterdam Arena, Ajax expected to atone for their first leg profligacy and get into the last eight of the Champions League. Their dominance of the ball, field and chances signaled a victory, but a marksman emerged from the shadows to break hearts near the death.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Ajax’s pursuit of Dutch dominance has been going to plan. Back to winning ways in the Eredivisie with a pair of 3-2 wins, Ajax have now booked a place in the KNVB Cup final. PSV, their opponents in that contest, are the main barrier to a second domestic double in a row, but the path to the top is far harder in Europe. A perfect group stage record of six victories set the tone for another deep run in the Champions League, yet the guests have shown a worrying penchant for delivering on the grand stage.
A 1-1 draw on Friday signaled the sorry state of Benfica’s affairs in Portugal. Now twelve points adrift of league leaders Porto and out of the running in both cups, their sole hope of glory rests in conquering the European elite: a triumph they have not achieved since 1962. Such a feat is a pipe dream, but a first leg stalemate in Lisbon upset the odds to keep the tie in check. Only 90 minutes stand between them and a spot in the last eight of the competition for the first time in a decade.
Benfica manager Nélson Veríssimo picked his usual 4-2-3-1 shape for this match. Nicolás Otamendi came back into the fold in place of Morato, restoring his partnership with Jan Vertonghen. To his right, Gilberto came in for Valentino Lazaro. The last change to the starting eleven that faced Vizela was in attack. Right winger Diogo Gonçalves dropped to the bench, making way for Everton Soares.
Erik ten Hag sent out virtually the same outfit he fielded in the first leg. Daley Blind moved to the left of the back four where Nicolás Tagliafico had featured last time against Cambuur. Lisandro Martínez and Jurriën Timber sat at the center of the defense, while Edson Álvarez took the spot of Davy Klaassen in the double pivot. The Ajax manager’s main alteration was an enforced one between the posts. A broken finger had ruled out Remko Pasveer, so André Onana was now the goalkeeper.
Ajax the enterprisers
Ajax dominated the possession, controlling 65% of the ball by the 35th minute. Once more, apt throw-in routines in their third of the pitch emerged as a method to break spells of Benfica’s pressure. One such setup saw the central defender next to the ball move higher, taking the attention of lone striker Darwin Núñez. The center-back on the far side was free to drop off and offer a safe backward option.
33rd minute: throw-in routine from Ajax. Noussair Mazraoui sets up to throw back the ball into play. Timber pulls Núñez towards him while Martínez drops to the right. From here, Mazraoui rotates into the right halfspace and Timber drops off next to his partner at the back, creating a 3-1-5-1 structure.
Once they reached the final third, ten Hag’s men relied on familiar patterns. Above all, depth runs to the byline to find crosses into the box were the means of creating chances. To the right, it was Mazraoui that made these underlapping runs. Blind and the central defenders formed a back three while the right back moved inward between the lines and behind Everton. Steven Berghuis stayed narrower to create space for wide switches, giving Mazraoui and Antony a license to combine.
On the left flank, the key man in this role was Dušan Tadić. Among Ajax’s interplay, the left winger rotated into the channel between Gilberto and Otamendi more than Antony. From here, Blind could move higher to stretch the midfield, or Ryan Gravenberch drifted outward as Blind pulled inside to the halfspace. Indeed, it was no shock that Tadić was at the heart of the first goal. A pullback from the captain to Sébastien Haller teed up the striker for his 12th goal of the campaign in the Champions League. An offside ruling chalked off his strike, but Ajax’s intent to impose their mark was evident.
3rd minute: ball progression from Ajax. Álvarez pulls to the right of Gonçalo Ramos, drawing the forward away from Martínez. The lack of immediate pressure on the ball is a cue for the central defender to drive forward and exploit the connections between the lines. Berghuis and Gravenberch double up on Adel Taarabt, Blind moves up the left flank, and Tadić moves inside. The orientation of Martínez and positioning of the eights opens the passing lane to the fullback, who then finds Tadić.
Benfica barred from progression in stalemate
Racking up the shot count to no avail, Ajax did not relent in their efforts off the ball. The home team organized themselves in a 4-2-3-1 system. Haller swept across the central defenders to crank up the pressure from the front. Man to man marking was prominent in the middle of the park, and the fullbacks jumped off the front to close down indenting movements from the wingers.
Benfica had instigated some danger in the first leg, but the visitors were bereft of any threat here. They mustered merely one shot, from a corner, before the break, giving little sign of breaking the deadlock. It seemed as if it were only a matter of time until the Dutch champions took the lead.
50th minute: pressing sequence from Ajax. Julian Weigl drops off to support Otamendi in the buildup phase, drawing out Berghuis from the middle of the park. Haller then makes an arcuate run to cover the lateral pass to Vertonghen, whom Antony awaits to shut down from the ball far side. The central defender hits a long ball into the path of Núñez, but Benfica are not able to recapture the second ball.
In the second half, the hosts picked up the pieces from where they left off at half time. But Benfica’s block frustrated them all the more, conceding efforts at a lower rate as the match ebbed on. A threat was sparse on the break, but set-pieces were ominous in the leadup to the final stages of the contest.
The super eagle soars to lead the charge
For all of their work off the ball, the away team still were short of a threat in open play. So, in the 72nd minute, Veríssimo made a second substitution, bringing on Roman Yaremchuk in place of Everton. The Ukrainian led the line, forcing Núñez onto the left flank. They soon aroused a stir through a familiar route. In the 75th minute, Ramos picked up the ball, carrying it out to the corner flag. Álvarez stole in to retrieve possession, but he could only foul the forward, giving up a free kick.
Grimaldo whipped in a menacing cross from the right flank to the edge of the six yard box, where Timber held down the rearguard. However, Núñez towered above his marker, beating Onana to the ball, and planted a header into the back of the net. From nowhere, Ajax were on the brink of an exit.
Darwin Núñez was named Player of the Match. The UEFA Technical panel said: "He worked hard for his team, tried to cause problems for the Ajax defence throughout and showed real leadership. He capped all of that off with the goal." #UCL #ajaben #AJASLB pic.twitter.com/MBzqbkrqGJ— Football24/7 (@foet247europa) March 16, 2022
Still to turn to his bench, ten Hag promptly reacted. In the 81st minute, he made a double substitution. Klaassen came in for Berghuis, and Álvarez made way for forward Brian Brobbey, who operated to the left of Haller in the frontline. Several adjustments then arose off the back of this aggressive shift in focus. Especially from Benfica’s goal kicks, Gravenberch dropped into the backline to the right of Martínez, while Timber made multiple forays into the final third. Mohamed Kudus entered the fray at the death, but Veríssimo’s men held on to seal a stinging victory. The Eagles continue to fly on.
Ten Hag: "Acho que na Champions tudo tem de estar do teu lado. Detalhes decidem jogos. Hoje, tal como em Lisboa, não esteve do nosso lado. Jogámos bem, não posso culpar ninguém. Jogámos como equipa, fomos ofensivos, não sofremos qualquer ataque do Benfica e esperávamos ganhar. pic.twitter.com/MxOjVJhYdi— GoncaloDias17 🇺🇦 (@goncalo_diass17) March 15, 2022
While Benfica were on the back foot for the lion’s share of the tie, they put in a committed effort to stymie Ajax in the final third. Núñez showed his importance to the team through his decisive contribution, but a lack of incision in open play might have reflected the ceiling of this outfit in anticipation of their fixture in the last eight. However, to reach this stage is a brilliant feat in and of itself for Veríssimo, whose exploits are bringing light to an otherwise underwhelming campaign.
On the other hand, an exit in the Round of 16 on home soil makes for bitter reading for ten Hag. Control in the transition phase offered Ajax more stability over the ninety minutes, but a toilsome showing after the break gave Benfica the room to strike. A double can round off a strong season from a well-drilled unit, and the hope will be this crop of players sticks around for at least another year.
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