Barça’s unbeaten start under Tata Martino came to an end with a 2-1 defeat to Frank de Boer’s Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena tonight. Barça failed to match Ajax’s intensity and Thulani Serero and Danny Hoesen fired the Dutch team into a deserved two-goal lead in the first half. Early in the second half Ajax gifted Barça a penalty and a perfect chance to get back in the game. Joel Veltman was sent off and Xavi pulled things back to 2-1 from the penalty, however, with 40 minutes to look for an equaliser against Ajax’s ten men, Barça lacked ambition and incisiveness and ended the game with nothing. There remains another chance against Celtic in two weeks’ time for Barça to earn the point needed to win Group H.
The stage was set with illustrious figures from the two clubs’ pasts such as Johan Cruyff, Ronald Koeman and Louis van Gaal in the Amsterdam Arena. Both sides began with a high press which led to some frantic midfield battles but little goalmouth action early on. With the early high pressing game both sides often found themselves playing the ball backwards with the intention of retaining possession. Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen showed better early footwork than Pinto who twice kicked directly into touch in the first 12 minutes.
This led to more pressure on the Barça defence which looked disorganised from the start. Carles Puyol played at right back with Martin Montoya switched to the left, while many might feel they would be better suited the other way round, but it was Gerard Piqué and Javier Mascherano in the centre who looked most out of sorts.
The first chance fell to Ajax in the 11th minute when Lasse Schöne crossed from the right and Viktor Fischer at the far post side-footed a half-volley too close to Pinto. Barça responded a couple of minutes later after Niklas Moisander cleared Pedro’s cross straight to Cesc Fabregas but the ex-Arsenal man’s shot was deflected wide for a corner.
Ajax clearly wanted the points more and Barça’s failure to match the pace set by the home side was disappointing. The next warning from Ajax came with a low shot wide from Daley Blind in the 17th minute. A couple of minutes later Davy Klaassen opened the play to the right for Ricardo Van Rhijn to cross and Serero stole in unmarked to steer the ball past Pinto from ten yards. A word here about Barça’s defending because it really was quite shocking: Song gave Klaassen too much room and the same goes for Montoya with Van Rhijn, Xavi didn’t stay with Serero, Mascherano was marking nobody and failed to spot Serero, and Piqué, who was marking, allowed the ball to run past him too easily.
There was no reaction from Barça to the goal and Ajax came looking for a second. Van Rhijn, Fischer and Nicolai Boilessen all tried their luck in the space of three minutes and the noise from the crowd increased even more. Ajax were still holding more possession and Barça’s problems increased with Piqué getting booked for illegally stopping Boilessen who had already skinned Puyol. From the resulting free-kick Schöne fired in a powerful right-footer from the left that Pinto could only parry.
Ajax’s dominance was rewarded again just before half-time. Another poor ball out of defence from Mascherano gifted Ajax a chance, Pinto blocked the first shot but Hoesen was quicker and more determined than Piqué and Puyol to pounce on the rebound and score with the help of a deflection off Piqué.
There was little sign for optimism at the start of the second half, especially when Piqué gave the ball away with a poor pass just nine seconds after the restart. However, in the 48th minute a poor back pass from Van Rhijn gave Neymar an opportunity to outsprint Veltman who clipped the Brazilian’s heels on the edge of the area and the Czech referee Pavel Královec awarded a borderline penalty and showed Veltman the red card. Xavi took the responsibility to take the kick and sent Cillessen the wrong way from the spot.
This was now a perfect opportunity for Barça to make up for the disastrous first half. Neymar set off on an encouraging 60-yard run but he ran out of steam as he entered the area, then in the 57th minute Iniesta sent a glorious pass with the outside of his right foot that Neymar controlled on his chest but his attempted lob didn’t quite have enough height and Cillessen stretched to get a hand a send the ball narrowly over.
Ajax regrouped into a tight 4-3-2 formation, there was now little attempt to play from the Dutch team who were happy just to close ranks and keep Barça at bay. After a spell of about ten minutes when it seemed likely that Barça would make the comeback, Ajax adapted well to the circumstances and sat back to defend solidly. There was little more spark from Barça going forwards, with perhaps only Piqué, who began to move into forward positions, and Neymar causing any concern to the Ajax defence.
Martino offered the chance to debutant Patric Gabarrón and Sergi Roberto but it was a difficult situation now for the youngsters to make an effect. Patric began with a mishit cross and a wayward shot but this was only par for the course for the overall team play on the night. There was a brief flurry of Barça corners around the 80-minute mark but this is never our most profitable route to scoring. Adama got another ten minutes at the end but Ajax defended solidly and the belief seemed to have completely drained out of the team as the game came to an end. Cillessen had nothing more to do and the Amsterdam Arena celebrated a highly deserved victory.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on the team given the circumstances. The number of injuries is bound to be noticed and the extremely strong position at the top of Group H undoubtedly affected our ambition. However, it was undoubtedly a pretty shoddy performance with some shambolic defending in the first half and an innocuous attack against Ajax’s ten men in the second. There may be questions over Martino’s decision to play Puyol at right-back and Montoya on the left, as at least Montoya can attack a bit if he’s played on the right. Neither of them looked particularly comfortable but at least we know that we have first-choice Dani Alves and Jordi Alba to return. More worrying was the performance of Piqué and Mascherano who are still supposed to be our best central defensive pairing. Given Marc Bartra’s encouraging good recent form then surely the youngster deserves his chance to make himself a place in the side which would allow Piqué, Puyol and Mascherano to battle for the other centre-back place. Most worrying of all was the attitude of the team which is demonstrated by the distant upwards stares of Xavi, Fabregas and Neymar in the main photo at the top of the page. It is moments like this that makes me long for the old-school give-em-a-bollocking type management What the ¡*%$! are you looking for up there? Divine $¡*%ing intervention? Very sad.
Ajax: Cillessen; Van Rhijn, Veltman, Moisander, Boilesen (Poulsen m34); Klaassen, Blind, Serero; Schöne (Denswill m52), Hoesen (Duarte m84), Fischer.
Barça: Pinto 6; Puyol 5 (Patric m68, 5.5), Piqué 5, Mascherano 4.5, Montoya 5.5; Xavi 5 (Sergi Roberto m74, 6), Song 5, Iniesta 6; Pedro 5, Fabregas 5.5 (Adama m82, –), Neymar 5.5.
Goals: m19 Serero 1-0, m42 Hoesen 2-0, m49 Xavi (pen) 2-1.
Yellow cards: m8 Schone, m31 Piqué, m39 Fabregas, m52 Iniesta, m53 Neymar, m59 Van Rhijn, m68 Montoya.