Manchester United’s last 16 Champions League exit dominated headlines on Tuesday night. However elsewhere, Ajax also suffered a surprise exit from the competition at the hands of Benfica.
The Dutch champions were favourites to progress into the quarter-finals after securing a 2-2 draw in the first-leg away in Benfica. They were the better side in that game and had the better of the action for much of the second-leg back in Amsterdam. However, a Darwin Nunez strike late into the second half sent the visitors into the next round.
Ajax manager Erik ten Hag has been one of the long-time candidates tipped to be the next permanent United manager. However, there’s a chance his side’s premature exit from the Champions League could have harmed his prospects of landing that role, with United officials eager to avoid a repeat of Tuesday’s failures under any new regime.
The reality though is that Ajax’s exit shouldn’t really reflect too much on the coaching capabilities of Ten Hag. This is because there’s a reasonable case to be made that, unlike United, across the two legs, his side performed much better than their opponents and were unlucky not to progress.
Across both last 16 legs, Ajax enjoyed a possession share of over 60 per cent and generated a combined 26 shots on goal, 10 of which hit the target. Benfica managed just 14, only five of which hit the target.
Furthermore, the Portuguese side actually only managed one effort on goal across the whole 90 minute match on Tuesday — unfortunately for Ajax that led to the game’s winning strike.
Beyond what happened against Benfica, it’s worth remembering that in the group stage of this competition, Ajax won all six of their fixtures for the very first time in their history — a standout achievement for Ten Hag, especially given their group contained Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP and Besiktas.