Barça needed to wait until a 94th minute goal from substitute Sandro to secure the three points against Ajax in tonight’s Champions League Group F match at Camp Nou. The victory seemed to be in the bag after Neymar Jr and Leo Messi scored early goals to put Barça in a commanding two-nil lead but 19-year-old Ajax sub Anwar El Ghazi pulled a goal back in the 88th minute to produce a nervous end to the game before Sandro’s late strike completed the 3-1 scoreline.
With Busquets missing through a hip injury, Luis Enrique’s only concession with Madrid in mind was to rest Jeremy Mathieu. Ter Stegen continued as Barça’s Champions League keeper while Marc Bartra came into defence alongside Alves, Pique and Alba. Javier Mascherano gave another excellent performance in the defensive midfield role and he was well accompanied by the return of Rakitic and Iniesta. Pedro, Messi and Neymar continued in attack.
Barça looked well tuned in from the start, with an aggressive press to unsettle the Dutch team and a quick ball movement in possession. Ajax also tried to play a high defensive line but there was always the danger they would get caught on the wrong foot. In the seventh minute Mascherano’s anticipation won the ball back, Rakitic and Pedro combined to get the ball to Messi who skipped past Moisander, drawing Veltman and Van Rhijn towards him, and then slipped the ball left to Neymar who swept the ball inside the far post past Cillessen’s dive.
With Mascherano, Rakitic and Iniesta controlling the midfield Barça looked very comfortable with the lead. Messi fired over after Alba’s low cross, then in the 24th minute Mascherano again won the ball back in the Ajax half, giving the ball to Iniesta who whipped an extraordinary pass through to Messi who controlled superbly and beat Cillesen with a quick low shot despite the keeper’s brave effort to get a hand to the ball.
Two-nil up and Barça were turning it on. A great move involving Pedro, Neymar and Messi ended with Pedro shooting across the keeper and against the far post. Soon after Messi played a splendid one-two with Alves on the right and burst into the area only to see his cross cleared.
There had been practically nothing seen from Ajax in attack but then in the 36th minute Piqué, who has already had his ups and downs this season, got robbed on the side of the area by Kishna and was lucky to see the Ajax striker overhit the ball to Ter Stegen. Then before half time the visitors won three successive corners and managed three shots from outside the area. Ter Stegen wasn’t troubled by any of them, Sigthorsson came the closest but his shot was deflected wide off Bartra. Before these hopeful attempts from Ajax came the moment of the game at the other end when from 35 yards out Andrés Iniesta spotted a gap in the defence and darted sparklingly through the middle only to be denied a wondergoal by Cillessen’s arm.
It had generally been a very solid first half from Barça and the second half also began promisingly. Messi shot over from 20 yards, then a couple of minutes later Neymar found Pedro whose shot was parried by Cillessen and Messi knocked in the rebound only to see the goal ruled out for offside. Then in the 51st minute Pedro and Messi tried to pass their way through the middle, and when a defender put a foot in on Pedro, Messi followed up but shot into the sidenetting.
Ajax showed they weren’t out of it when Van Rhijn shot wide from 15 yards on 55 minutes but Luis Enrique was confident enough to replace Neymar with Sandro after an hour. Soon after came a big scare when Pique shinned Schöne’s cross narrowly over his own crossbar. Even so, the Barça coach decided to do what some believed he didn’t have the authority to do: and he subbed off Messi for Munir in the 66th minute. With a clásico on the horizon and after the recent fuss in the press after the Eibar game, there were no complaints or sulks from the Argentinian.
However, the changes didn’t help the team. Rakitic had a drive straight at Cillessen but Ajax began to push further forward. Rafinha came on for Iniesta with 15 minutes left and although there didn’t seem much danger Ajax began to win the odd free-kick or corner. Time was ticking away, then in the 88th minute Bartra failed to stop a charge from Milik and Riedewald through the middle, Milik managed to get a shot in that Ter Stegen saved but El Ghazi was on hand to stab home the rebound.
There were a few nervous moments around Camp Nou, especially when the referee’s assistant signalled four minutes of injury time. However, Rakitic showed his experience to win a couple of time-wasting free-kicks, then in the final minute a splendid move up the right involving Rakitic, Alves, Pedro and Munir ended with the ball coming inside to Rafinha who played the ball on to Sandro on the left and the Barça sub cut inside a defender before shooting firmly inside the far post.
Despite the drop in intensity in the second half this was a good build-up in preparation for the Bernabéu. The first half showed that the team is connecting well and working very solidly to regain possession. There are now plenty of questions regarding Luis Enrique’s selection for Saturday. Does Luis Suarez start or another forward? Or could Iniesta be moved forward to play Xavi as an extra midfielder? Will Busquets make it in time? And if Mascherano is needed in midfield who will play at the back? There is also the possibility of playing Mathieu at left back though now that Bale has been ruled out this seems less likely. More on Saturday’s big game in the clásico preview on Friday.
Barça: Ter Stegen 6.5; Alves 6.5, Pique 5.5, Bartra 6, Alba 6.5; Rakitic 7, Mascherano 8, Iniesta 7.5 (Rafinha m76, 6.5); Pedro 6.5, Messi 7.5 (Munir m66, 6.5), Neymar 7 (Sandro m61, 7).
Ajax: Cillessen; Van Rhijn, Veltman, Moisander, Viergever; Klaassen, Zimling (Riedewald m56), Andersen, Kishna (Milik h/t); Schöne; Sigthórsson (El Ghazi m73).
Goals: m7 Neymar 1-0, m24 Messi 2-0, m88 El Ghazi 2-1, m94 Sandro 3-1.
Yellow cards: m32 Veltman, m69 Van Rhijn, m80 Pedro, m90 Riedewald.