Ajax get Champions League reality check in high-octane draw against Benfica to remain unbeaten

SL Benfica and Ajax Amsterdam played out a 2-2 draw at Estadio da Luz on Wednesday in their UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg clash which now sees the tie head to the Netherlands next month with Erik ten Hag’s men favorites to finish the job.

Dusan Tadic put the visitors in front after 18 minutes with a wonderful technical finish from Noussair Mazraoui’s assist but a Sebastien Haller double, one for each team thanks to an own goal, saw the hosts first pull level and then fall behind once more within three minutes in Lisbon.

It was a tighter second half and it took Benfica until 18 minutes from time to level once more with substitute Roman Yaremchuk on target in timely fashion before happily picking up a yellow for removing his shirt to display a t-shirt showing support for Ukraine at a time of escalating tension in and around his homeland.

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That was the extent of the scoring and Ajax will look back and rue Antony’s early missed opportunity and his effort which hit the woodwork which Haller was unable to position himself well enough to snap up another goal.

However, the Dutch giants arguably remain favorites to advance to the quarterfinals after a tougher test than they were perhaps expecting but one they will still feel that they should have won on the night given the chances they created.

True, the Portuguese powerhouse pushed back in the second half and their experienced defensive pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen kept the Belgian’s formative club at bay, but it was far from dull, and the game overall lived up to its pre-match billing as a classic contest.

Expectation and hype surrounding Ajax perhaps needs to be tempered a bit now that they have lost their 100% winning record this season, but home advantage should be enough to give them the necessary motivation to get the job done at Johan Cruyff Arena and their statistics remain good.

This result underlined in some ways the pressing nature of the Eredivisie leaders’ need to succeed now with multiple key figures, notably captain Tadic, Daley Blind and Steven Berghuis all 30 or over and substitutes Davy Klaassen and Nicolas Tagliafico all hitting that 30-mark too.

With Andre Onana off and the likes of Antony, Ryan Gravenberch and possibly even Haller likely to attract suitors, this could be the last chance for this group of players to emulate their feats from a few years ago — and they know it.

Ten Hag himself has been linked with other managerial roles across Europe while transfer guru Marc Overmars has left the club in disgrace so perhaps this really is the last hurrah for many of these players and Benfica might just have served them up a timely wake-up call with this draw.

A few months away from the intensity which comes with the Champions League always has the potential to play with a team’s form between group and knockout phase but Benfica will have to be even better than their spirited second half display to harbor any chance of progression.

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