Ajax’s incredible Champions League journey has abruptly come to an end after they were unable to win at home yet again.
Ajax failed to end a 26-year winless skid at home in the knockout rounds of the European competition on Tuesday, falling 1-0 to Benfica to end a faultless group stage campaign.
After a 2-2 draw in the first leg of the last-16 encounter in Lisbon last month, the Dutch club was anticipated to breeze through to the final eight with home advantage in the second leg.
However, their chances of extending their run in the Champions League were dashed by Benfica, who have had a dismal domestic season and are currently 12 points off the top of the Portuguese league.
Story of the match
After a 2-2 tie in the first leg in Lisbon, Erik ten Hag’s home team had control from the start at the Johan Cruijff Arena on Tuesday.
Benfica, on the other hand, struck decisively in the 77th minute, when Nunez blasted in the Portuguese visitors’ first shot on goal, sending Nelson Verissimo’s side through.
Ajax dominated the opening exchanges, with Sebastien Haller scoring after only seven minutes, but the celebrations were cut short by a late offside penalty against Dusan Tadic.
Ten Hag’s players continued to play with authority but without result before the break, with Antony testing Odisseas Vlachodimos from range and Ryan Gravenberch seeing a fizzing strike turned over.
Tadic swerved off target as Ajax resumed where they left off after the break, just before an unmarked opponent. Jan Vertonghen gave the hosts a scare when he headed wide from a good chance.
Antony came close to breaking the deadlock, but his headed effort just missed the top-left corner, and Ajax’s failure to convert proved costly with 13 minutes remaining.
Nunez towered over goalkeeper Andre Onana to meet Alex Grimaldo’s inswinging free-kick from the right flank, and he clinically headed into the left corner, snatching the victory for Benfica.
Ajax had a chance to equalize deep in stoppage time, but Benfica goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos made a fantastic save to deny Brian Brobbey, who was then called offside.
Comments after the game
“Obviously I’m very happy. It was a very difficult game, we knew we all had to run when it came time to defend and attack,” Nunez told reporters.
“We played against a team that plays very well, we knew we were going to suffer, we suffered, we had to defend but our team gave everything,” he added.
Elimination was a bitter blow said home captain Dusan Tadic.
“We stopped all their efforts to counter-attack and then we lose from a free kick… We didn’t deserve to lose. We were the better team, but in Europe, it’s also about set pieces and counters. Then such a moment can be fatal.”
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.