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Ajax and Benfica coaches spar over who is the favourite

Lisbon (AFP) – Benfica interim coach Nelson Verissimo said on Tuesday that Ajax are “one of the best teams in Europe”,  but the Dutch side’s manager Erik ten Hag responded that “favourite does not matter” ahead of the two sides’ Champions League last-16 first leg.

The Portuguese giants welcome the Dutch champions to the Estadio da Luz on Wednesday, looking to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2016.

But Ajax won all six of their group games and only Bayern Munich scored more goals in this season’s competition heading into the knockout stages.

“We are going to face an opponent with a lot of quality,” said Verissimo, who took over at Benfica until the end of the season when Jorge Jesus was sacked in December.

“Ajax are currently one of the best teams in Europe. They have strengths, but also weaknesses that we’ll want to exploit.

“We know it will be difficult, but we are motivated. We have to keep possession, and also defend without the ball. Honestly, I think it’s 50/50.”

At his press conference, Ajax coach ten Hag, responded that Benfica were also dangerous.

“We want a good result, knowing who is favourite does not matter. We have analysed Benfica. They take advantage of mistakes,” he said. “Counter-attack is one of their strong points.”

He also praised the Benfica defence built around two 34-year-olds: Nicolas Otamendi and Ajax old boy Jan Vertonghen.

“The strength of Benfica is their experience, especially in the centre of defence,” said ten Haag. “We will have to be very good to create opportunities because they have experienced players like Otamendi and Vertonghen.”

Benfica qualified from their group at the expense of Barcelona but have struggled since Jesus’ dismissal, losing the Portuguese League Cup final to Sporting Lisbon and slipping 12 points behind league leaders Porto.

But Vertonghen believes playing in the Champions League again will be a breath of fresh air for his team.

– ‘Great games’ –

The 34-year-old started his career at Ajax, making 220 appearances for the Amsterdam side from 2006-2012, and will be making his first appearance in the Champions League knockout stages since losing the 2019 final to Liverpool with Tottenham.

“Every weekend I watch their (Ajax’s) games,” said Belgian Vertonghen.

“We analysed Ajax and we know their team very well. Coach (Verissimo) has a lot of confidence in his team.

“Our last match didn’t go so well (2-2 draw at Boavista), but we’ve played great games in the Champions League and I’m confident that Benfica will have a great game tomorrow.”

Benfica and Ajax have won six European Cups between them, although the Portuguese club’s last title came in 1962.

They last met in Europe in the group stage in 2018 when Ajax won 1-0 at home and drew 1-1 in Lisbon, advancing to the knockout rounds and reaching the semi-finals,  while Benfica were relegated to the Europa League.

“Tomorrow it will be a different game than three years ago, our players are different and our status has changed a lot since then because we have achieved many good results,”  said ten Hag.

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