AMSTERDAM (AFP) – Sebastien Haller will be bidding to continue his remarkable scoring record in this season’s Champions League when his Ajax side face Benfica in the first leg of their last-16 tie tonight (February 24, 4am Brunei time).
Ajax take on Benfica at the Estadio da Luz as they return to Lisbon, where Haller scored four times on his Champions League debut when the Dutch champions beat Sporting 5-1 along the road at the Jose Alvalade last September.
Ivory Coast international Haller went on to score 10 times in the group stage, becoming just the second player to find the net in all six group games in a Champions League campaign after Cristiano Ronaldo in 2017.
“Before the competition if you asked me if I would score that many goals of course I would say no,” Haller told Ajax TV ahead of the knockout stages of Europe’s elite club competition.
“I was happy with one already. I score one goal in the Champions League and my life is done.”
Haller, who is 27, was the first player to score a quadruple on his debut in the competition since Marco van Basten in 1992 and his goals helped Ajax top their group with maximum points, beating Sporting, Borussia Dortmund and Besiktas home and away.
His tally of 10 goals puts him one ahead of Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in the competition’s scoring charts and is as many as Dortmund’s Erling Haaland managed last season when he finished as the Champions League’s leading marksman.
“Ten is okay, it’s a good number because we created a lot of chances. I could have scored even more but 10 is a really great number,” Haller added.
Signed from West Ham United in January last year, French-born Haller recently marked his 50th appearance for Ajax with a hat-trick of close-range finishes in a 5-0 hammering of FC Twente.
He has 28 goals in 28 games in all competitions this season, including six in four games since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, where the Ivory Coast went out in the last 16 to Egypt.
However, Haller was not among the goals as Erik ten Hag’s side won 1-0 at Willem II at the weekend to stay five points clear of PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Dutch Eredivisie and make it 10 straight wins in all competitions.
Ajax have been rocked off the field by the recent resignation of sporting director Marc Overmars after he admitted sending a “series of inappropriate messages” to female colleagues.
Yet on the pitch Ten Hag’s side are threatening another deep run in the Champions League, three years after they reached the semi-finals with Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong their young stars.
A team in which the likes of Dusan Tadic, Brazilian international Antony, Davy Klaassen and Steven Berghuis are also enjoying fine campaigns are favourites to get the better of Benfica in a meeting of two clubs with six European Cups between them.
Benfica qualified from their group at the expense of Barcelona but coach Jorge Jesus was sacked at the end of December, with Nelson Verissimo replacing him.
Since then Benfica have lost the League Cup final to Sporting and slipped 12 points behind Portuguese league leaders Porto.
They do, however, boast a prolific marksman of their own in Uruguay’s Darwin Nunez, who has scored 23 times this season including a brace in the 3-0 demolition of Barcelona in September.