Atlético de Madrid and Benfica break forecasts and get into the quarterfinals of the Champions League

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Paris (AFP) – Neither Atlético de Madrid nor Benfica were a priori the favorites in their qualifiers against Manchester United and Ajax, especially after the draws in the first leg, but this Wednesday they broke the forecasts and won by the minimum (1-0) in two temples of the European football, Old Trafford and the Johan Cruyff Arena, to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

Both teams join those already qualified for the quarterfinals: Bayern, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Manchester City.

The two games were quite similar: local dominance, but without efficiency in the final meters and both Atlético and Benfica took advantage of one of their few chances to win and win the tie.

The rojiblanco goal was scored by the Brazilian Renan Lodi shortly before the break, while Benfica’s goal was the work of the Uruguayan Darwin Núñez when the duel entered the final sprint (77).

Manchester United’s Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo vies with Atletico Madrid’s Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak during the Champions League round of 16 match at Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, England, on 15 March 2022 Pablo ELLIS AFP

Encouraged by their fans, United began crushing Atlético and Anthony Elanga, the scorer of the Mancunian goal in Madrid, came close to opening the scoring with a point-blank shot that Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak (14) took with his face.

red and white wall

Little by little, Diego Simeone’s team got rid of the rival domain and looked for the counterattack to hurt the English. The Portuguese Joao Felix even scored, but the referee annulled the goal for offside by the Frenchman Antoine Griezmann (34).

It was the foretaste of what happened shortly after and with almost the same protagonists: the young Portuguese left the ball for Griezmann, who crossed to the far post and Lodi headed the ball into the net (41).

In Atlético’s worst moments, Jan Oblak appeared to prevent the English from scoring, such as when he saved a dangerous shot from Bruno Fernandes just before the break (45+2) or a header from Frenchman Raphaël Varane (78).

Despite the English pressure, Atlético held on in defense until they qualified for the quarterfinals.

Champions League 2021-2022: round of 16 second leg
Champions League 2021-2022: round of 16 second leg Vicente LEFAI AFP

“When the team works as a team, it excites me. We have been a competitive team, not being ashamed to play withdrawn, knowing what to do when leaving,” claimed Simeone after the game, highlighting the “spirit” that the team has recovered Athletics in the last month.

United coach Ralf Rangnick surrendered to the rival’s defensive play: “It’s not that easy to break that wall. I think we didn’t have the physicality to break that wall at Atlético (…) We tried everything, we had two or three chances set pieces, but in play we don’t generate much”.

Darwin Núñez decides

In Amsterdam, Ajax’s superiority over Benfica was even greater. True to their style, the Dutch monopolized the ball, but without precision in the final meters, especially Ivorian Sébastian Haller, one of the surprises of the current Champions League season and scorer of eleven goals in the top European club tournament.

Haller scored shortly after kick-off, but the referee ruled it out for offside by Dusan Tadic (7).

Benfica's players celebrate after winning the Champions League round of 16 football match against Ajax at the Johan Cruijff Arena, in Amsterdam, on March 15, 2022
Benfica’s players celebrate after winning the Champions League round of 16 football match against Ajax at the Johan Cruijff Arena, in Amsterdam, on March 15, 2022 JUAN YOURS AFP

Later, neither the Brazilian Antony (25 and 62), nor Ryan Gravenberch (36), nor Tadic (49) managed to beat Benfica’s Greek goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos.

And Ajax forgave so much that they ended up paying for it: a lateral foul by the Mexican Edson Álvarez, was hung by the Spanish Álex Grimaldo in the heart of the area and Darwin Núñez got up to head into the net (77).

“We played as a high quality team. We knew what we had to do. We suffered, but when we had the ball it was to enjoy ourselves. In the second half we managed to go on the counterattack and score”, congratulated the 22-year-old Uruguayan striker, author this season of 4 goals in the Champions League and 20 in the Portuguese league.

Pressured by the result, Ajax had even less clarity of mind in the final meters and although they pressed until the end looking for the goal, they were unable even to force extra time.

Ajax Amsterdam's Brazilian forward Antony battles for the ball with Benfica's Spanish defender Alex Grimaldo during a Champions League round of 16 match at the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam on March 15, 2022
Ajax Amsterdam’s Brazilian forward Antony battles for the ball with Benfica’s Spanish defender Alex Grimaldo during a Champions League round of 16 match at the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam on March 15, 2022 John THYS AFP

“Our positional play was excellent. We were very good with the ball. I have congratulated my players. Perhaps the only thing we lacked was some creativity. It hurts that you are eliminated for a moment of inattention”, summed up Dutch coach Erik ten Hag. in relation to the error of the local goalkeeper André Onana in the Portuguese goal.

On Wednesday the last two quarterfinalists will be announced, who will come out of the duels Juventus-Villarreal (1-1 in the first leg) and Lille-Chelsea (0-2).