Football Features

Darwin Nunez consolidates his status as Europe’s most prolific player under 23 in smash-and-grab win over Ajax

By Ben Green

Darwin Nunez consolidates his status as Europe’s most prolific U23 player in smash-and-grab win over Ajax

Published: 22:43, 15 March 2022 | Updated: 2:09, 29 November 2022

Benfica produced a Champions League smash-and-grab for the ages after knocking out Ajax from the last 16.

European royalty, both Ajax and Benfica converged on the hallowed Amsterdam turf looking to pick up from where they left off in Lisbon late last month, a 2-2 draw that tapped into the fistic subconscious of each club as they traded blows in a flurry of leather.

This showdown in the Dutch capital wasn’t quite as frenetic, instead it was just the one goal that separated the sides, but the script-makers were in a particuarly mischievous mood this evening as they swung the tie in the favour of the club who rarely ventured outside their own half.

Ajax pressed and probed for the majority of the match, registering 18 shots to Benfica’s four. They enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, 68.6% to Benfica’s 31.4% while they doubled their passes, 596 to 278. But, it was Nelson Verissimo’s men who walked away with that golden ticket to the next round.

Darwin Nunez, who has impressed so much since joining from Almeria in 2020, once again took centre stage for one of Benfica’s most important games. The 22-year-old bagged the decisive goal with a brave header that capitalised on a lazy venture forward from Andre Onana.

The match-winner now means Nunez has strengthened his position as the most prolific player under the age of 23 in any top-flight European competitions this season (26). For players 23 and under, he now sits level with Kylian Mbappe, and ahead of Dusan Vlahovic (24) and Erling Haaland (23).

It was a night where the Uruguayans came to the fore as Jose Gimenez produced a defensive masterclass as Atletico Madrid kept a clean sheet against Manchester United and knocked out the English heavyweights, winning 1-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate.

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For Nunez, he needed just one shot to get the job done. The Uruguayan often cut an isolated figure in the final third for Benfica, who was more often than not orbiting the centre circle as Ajax executed another flurry forward, but when the opportunity presented itself, he took his chance.

Of course, this is not a one-off for Nunez. His status as Europe’s most prolific player under 23 has been well and truly strengthened tonight and over the course of this season, and he will no doubt be itching to draw one of the big boys in Friday’s draw to really enhance his reputation.