Ajax 0-1 Benfica (2-3 agg): Nunez sends Portuguese into quarters
Darwin Nunez headed a late winner as Benfica secured their place in the Champions League quarter-finals with a 1-0 victory at Ajax, sealing a 3-2 aggregate win in the last-16 tie.
A 2-2 draw in the first leg in Lisbon had left the contest finely poised, and Erik ten Hag's home side dictated from the outset at the Johan Cruijff Arena on Tuesday.
However, it was Benfica who struck decisively in the 77th minute when Nunez powered in the Portuguese visitors' first attempt on target to send Nelson Verissimo's side through.
Benfica will now wait to find out the identity of their opponents in the last-eight draw on Friday, with the two-leg clashes set to take place across early April.
Ajax dominated the opening exchanges and Sebastien Haller turned home after just seven minutes, but a belated offside flag against Dusan Tadic cut short the celebrations.
Antony tested Odisseas Vlachodimos from range, and Ryan Gravenberch saw a fizzing strike tipped over as Ten Hag's players continued in authoritative fashion but without reward before the break.
Tadic skewed off target as Ajax picked up where they left off after the interval, before an unmarked Jan Vertonghen offered the hosts a scare as he headed wide from a presentable chance.
Antony almost broke the deadlock, but his headed effort narrowly missed the top-left corner, and Ajax's failure to convert proved costly with 13 minutes remaining.
Nunez towered above goalkeeper Andre Onana to meet Alex Grimaldo's inswinging free-kick from the right flank and he clinically headed into the left corner, dramatically snatching the spoils for Benfica.
What does it mean? Benfica edge through in unlikely circumstances
Benfica twice fell behind in the first leg and once again found themselves with their backs against the wall in Amsterdam, managing just 31.4 per cent of possession.
But a spirited defensive performance, coupled with Ajax's lack of clinical finishing, ensured Verissimo's side made it through to the Champions League's last eight for the first time since the 2015-16 season and just the fourth occasion in the 21st century.
Veteran Vertonghen shines
Vertonghen was a part of the Tottenham side that reached the 2018-19 Champions League final, beating Ten Hag's Ajax in the semi-final thanks to late Lucas Moura heroics.
The centre-back once again thwarted the Dutch outfit as he managed a game-high 10 clearances and won an impressive five of his eight duels.
Tremendous Tadic efforts prove in vain
The evergreen Tadic has been a menace for any opposition defence in his outings for Ajax this season and this game was no different as he created a game-leading five chances.
Indeed, only Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior has laid on as many opportunities (24) in the Champions League this campaign as the Ajax man, but Tadic's efforts ultimately proved in vain.
Key Opta facts
- Benfica have qualified for the Champions League quarter-finals for a fifth time, also managing that feat in 1994-95, 2005-06, 2011-12 and 2015-16, being eliminated at that stage each time.
- Since reaching the quarter-finals in the 2002-03 season, Ajax have failed to reach that stage in 11 of their 12 subsequent participations in the competition, managing it only in 2018-19 when they reached the semi-final.
- Since the current format of the Champions League began in 2003-04, Ajax are only the second side to have scored as many as 22 goals without reaching the quarter-finals of the competition, after Paris Saint-Germain in 2017-18 (27 goals, eliminated in last-16 stage).
- Benfica enjoyed only their second win in their last 15 away Champions League matches (D4 L9), with this their first since a 3-2 victory at AEK Athens back in October 2018.
- Nunez scored his fourth Champions League goal of the season for Benfica, with only Nuno Gomes ever scoring more in a single season for the club (five in 1998-99).
- Haller netted 11 Champions League goals for Ajax this season but will not play beyond the last-16 stage – he is the first player to net 11 or more goals in a Champions League season and not play in at least the quarter-final stage.
- Daley Blind made his 44th appearance for Ajax in the Champions League, the outright most by an Ajax player in the European Cup or Champions League, overtaking three players on 43 games (Sjaak Swart, Piet Keizer and Wim Suurbier).
- Nineteen-year-old Gravenberch made his 14th Champions League start for Ajax, the joint-most starts by a Dutch teenager in Champions League history along with Nigel de Jong (14 between 2002 and 2004). Only three outfield players have started more games as a teenager: Cesc Fabregas (22), Kylian Mbappe (20) and Tomas Rosicky (15).
Ajax return to Eredivisie action in a crunch clash at home to Feyenoord on Sunday, while Benfica host Estoril on the same day.