Ajax would not have expected such a spirited performance from Benfica in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League at Estadio da Luz. The home team made a comeback twice in the game to hold the Dutch club for 2-2.
Sebastien Haller can’t stop scoring in the Champions League. He now has 11 goals in seven matches for Ajax. He scored for both sides on the first leg of the Round of 16 ties.
The prolific Ivory Coast striker’s 11 goals for Ajax in his first seven Champions League matches are the highest tally ever by a debutant in Europe’s top club competition.
But it was not enough to secure Ajax’s seventh straight Champions League victory of the season.
Captain Dusan Tadic put Ajax ahead in the 18th minute, placing a volley past Odisseas Vlachodimos in the Benfica goal after a cross from the right by Noussair Mazraoui, who had started the move by winning the ball on the right from Alejandro Grimaldo.
Haller deflected a hard, low cross by former Ajax defender Jan Vertonghen into his own net to bring the scores level in the 26th minute but made amends just three minutes later when he tapped home a rebound to continue his scoring streak.
But the Amsterdam club struggled in Lisbon as Benfica threatened throughout the second half with its quick attacks.
A deflected shot by Everton went wide in the 55th minute, and Darwin Nuñez just failed to get on the end of a cross by Rafa Silva five minutes later. It was a rare failure by Nunez, who has scored 23 times across all competitions this season.
The pressure finally paid off when Remko Pasveer saved a powerful shot by Goncalo Ramos and substitute Roman Yaremchuk beat Steven Berghuis to the ball to head home Benfica’s second equalizer of the night in the 72nd minute.
Yaremchuk was wearing the Ukrainian coat of arms under his Benfica kit and, amid the ongoing conflict with Russia on the Ukrainian border, took to Instagram after the match to explain his celebration.
“I am Ukrainian, and I am proud of that,” he wrote. “Being thousands of kilometres away from my native country, I want to support everyone who is now in tension in their native land, now is the time to unite.
“This is our country, our history, our culture, our people and our borders. I would like to thank our defenders for their courage. Glory to Ukraine.”
Ajax boss Erik Ten Haag was disappointed with the performance of his team. “We let it slip unnecessarily. We didn’t convert chances,” he said.
The second leg will take place in Amsterdam on March 15.