A Leo Messi hat-trick and a headed goal from Gerard Piqué helped Barça to a 4-0 victory over Dutch champions Ajax as the Champions League returned to Camp Nou tonight. The result of the first official game between the two famous club leaves Barça on top of Group H on three points along with AC Milan who beat Celtic 2-0 at San Siro in the group’s other game.
The winner of the game was rarely in doubt after Messi fired Barça ahead with a bullet free-kick in the 22nd minute, though Ajax will feel unlucky not to have got on the scoresheet as Victor Valdés denied the Dutch team with a series of good saves including a 77th-minute penalty stop from Kolbein Sigthorsson’s effort.
Tata Martino remained in Barceona for the game despite the death of his father earlier this week, and he began with the expected team with Pedro and Xavi starting on the bench. Adriano came in for the injured Jordi Alba, Fabregas replaced Xavi in midfield and Alexis came back in place of Cristian Tello in attack. Frank de Boer surprised a little in his team selection by including left-back Nicolai Boilesen on the left wing supporting Bojan Krkic and Sigthorsson in attack.
From early on it was clear that Ajax would try to play their normal high pressing game while trying to match Barça’s possession game. However, both sides were guilty of some imprecise play and the opening spell was disappointing with only Neymar looking lively for Barça going forward. In the 3rd minute the Brazilian cut inside after Iniesta’s run but Ajax keeper Kenneth Vermeer got behind his shot comfortably. Then three minutes later Iniesta played a short corner with Neymar whose intended pass back to Iniesta ran on to Fabregas who fired over from 25 yards.
However, after these early shots Ajax began to look more comfortable and Barça struggled to find much rhythm with Mascherano giving some poor passes. However, Ajax were occasional drawn into some foul play and in the 20th minute Duarte was lucky not to get booked for a hack on Messi 25 yards out. The Norwegian referee Svein Oddvar Moen may have pardoned Duarte but Messi didn’t, smacking the free kick past Vermeer via the keeper’s right-hand post.
Ajax began to create more danger after Messi’s opener. Bojan had hardly been seen on his return to Camp Nou but in the 30th minute he sent Ajax’s first shot wide from 30 yards. A minute later Bojan pulled out an excellent cross which found the gap between Mascherano and Adriano, and Valdés had to be alert to stop Van Rhijn’s header. Barça reacted with a lightning-quick run from Neymar after Alexis won the ball in the Ajax half, but Vermeer got down well to save from the Brazilian’s shot. then in the 37th minute Bojan again caused problems with an attack down Ajax’s right, the ball came to Sigthorsson who laid it up for Duarte and Valdés had to dive to make his second import save of the game.
Barça ended the first half strongly with two chances. First a good combination between Neymar, Iniesta and Messi saw Iniesta reach the by-line and cross but after controlling on his chest Neymar blasted his shot well over. Then in the 45th minute Messi set off on a magnificent diagonal run from the right, taking the ball to the edge of area the Argentinian then lacked a bit of venom in his shot and Vermeer was able to dive and gather.
There is no disguising that Barça’s first half was disappointing. The desire to play a more vertical game actually seems to cause the players to have more doubts and the result is that there is more hesitation to the usual rapid flow. The full backs were not getting forward as much as in previous seasons and the main plan seemed to be to rely on the magic of Neymar and Messi.
Barça improved after the break. The passing was better and it was noticeable that Alves pushed forward more often. In the 49th minute Iniesta found the Brazilian on the right wing and his low cross was just out of Alexis’s reach and Van Rhijn cleared before Neymar could pounce. Barça should have had a penalty soon after when Moisander pointlessly shoved Neymar who was chasing a ball into the area but the ref waved play on. However, as Ajax tried to build a new attack Mascherano intercepted the ball, Busquets surged forward before slipping the ball right to Messi who cut inside past Denswil’s lunge before pulling his shot back inside the near post for his second of the game.
Messi might have completed his hat-trick a couple of minutes later, but in an attempt to volley Neymar’s cross the Argentinian made unlikely contact with his knee and the ball whistled just past the post. There was little threat from Ajax at this point and Barça’s third came 13 minutes later. Iniesta took a short corner to Neymar, there seemed little danger as Neymar took the ball along the touchline but then he whipped in a fine inswinging cross and Piqué beat Vermeer to the ball to head into the empty net.
Xavi and Pedro replaced Fabregas and Neymar and the veteran midfielder was soon involved, combining with Iniesta and Messi to send Alexis into the area but the Chilean flicked his shot wide. Less than a minute later Poulsen gave a bad pass that was intercepted by Xavi who quickly found Messi who dummied to shoot for one post before pulling his shot inside the other, leaving poor Vermeer standing.
With Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick yesterday for Real Madrid it was typical that Messi should respond with three goals tonight. However, Barça relaxed with the score at 4-0 and Mascherano gave away an unnecessary penalty. However, Valdés has started the season in splendid form and he dived right to stop Sigthorsson’s spot-kick. The Barça keeper prevented an Ajax consolotation twice more before the end, first tipping over to deny Bojan and then diving superbly to stop Poulsen’s drive in injury time.
The scoreline looks good at the end but it could have been quite different if it hadn’t been for the brilliance of Messi and Valdés. I said in my preview that we need to be patient with Martino but the team is not really clicking at the moment. At least the good results continue and we can now go to Glasgow to face Celtic in our next Champions League game in two weeks’ time with a little less pressure. First we have three league games starting at Rayo Vallecano this Saturday, followed by a home game with Real Sociedad next Tusday and a game at Almeria on Saturday 28. Hopefully we shall see some improvement in the play.
Barça: Valdés 8.5; Alves 7, Piqué 6.5 (Bartrá m80, –), Mascherano 5.5, Adriano 6; Fabregas 6 (Xavi m71, 7), Busquets 6.5, Iniesta 6.5; Alexis 6, Messi 8.5, Neymar 7 (Pedro m72, 6).
Ajax: Vermeer; Van Rhijn, Moisander, Denswil, Blind (Schöne m78); Duarte, Poulsen, De Jong (Serero m59); Sigthorsson, Bojan, Boilesen.
Goals: m22 Messi 1-0, m55 Messi 2-0, m69 Piqué 3-0, m75 Messi 4-0.
Yellow cards: m24 Moisander, m85 Denswil.