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Benfica battles to draw against Ajax

LISBON, PORTUGAL (AP) – Sébastien Haller can’t stop scoring in the Champions League. He now has 11 goals in seven matches for Ajax – and one for Benfica.

Haller scored for both teams early yesterday as Benfica came from behind twice to hold Ajax to a 2-2 draw in the first leg of their Champions League round-of-16 clash.

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 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.

Haller told Dutch broadcaster RTL 7 he blamed himself for the own goal and was glad to have made amends quickly.

Ajax’s Ivorian forward Sebastien Haller (C) controls the ball. PHOTO: AFP

“You need to be there at the good moment and this is what I’m training to do,” he said.
He could have given Ajax a comfortable two-goal cushion shortly before halftime but only managed to steer the ball wide from close range after Edson Alvarez hit the post.

“You are never happy when you don’t win a match,” Tadic said. “But this is Europe, there are two matches.”

In the group phase, Haller became the first man to score 10 goals in his first six games in Europe’s top-tier competition as Ajax won all of its matches.

Ajax coach Erik ten Hag lamented his team’s failure to capitalise on chances that could have put the match out of Benfica’s reach. “We let it slip unnecessarily. We didn’t convert chances,” he said.

But the Amsterdam club struggled in Lisbon as Benfica threatened throughout the second half with its quick breaks.

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 Nuñez, who has scored 23 times across all competitions this season.

The pressure finally paid off when Remko Pasveer saved a powerful shot by Gonçalo Ramos and substitute Roman Yaremchuk beat Steven Berghuis to the ball to head home Benfica’s second equaliser of the night in the 72nd minute.

“We had the better chances in the second half. In the end, the game could have gone either way,” Vertonghen said.

Benfica was playing its first Champions League game under Nélson Veríssimo, who took over after Jorge Jesus was fired despite leading the Lisbon club into the knockout stage from a group that included Bayern Munich and Barcelona.


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