Leo Messi scored his 70th and 71st Champions League goals to earn Barça a confidence-restoring 0-2 victory over Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena tonight. Messi’s double takes the Argentinian level with Raúl as the highest ever scorer in Champions League history while the three points take Barça through to the last 16 over the tournament though there is still a battle for top spot in the group as Paris Saint Germain retain a one-point advantage over Barça after beating Apoel 1-0 in tonight’s other Group F match.
The main surprise in Luis Enrique’s team selection was that despite the injury to Jeremy Mathieu, there was again no place for Gerard Piqué, This meant that Marc Bartra was brought in to partner Mascherano in defence while Sergio Busquets continued as defensive midfield pivot. Rakitic continued on the right of midfield which meant Xavi was asked to play on the left while Suarez, Messi and Neymar started again up front.
With both teams pressing high the early exchanges were fast and frenetic. However, there was a lack of order which led to both sides losing the ball quickly, while the referee Pedro Proença showed his eagerness to show cards by booking Mascherano and El-Ghazi in the first ten minutes. There wasn’t a shot to mention until the 16th minute when El-Ghazi got the better of Alba and after Klaasen crossed, a poor clearance from Alves fell straight to Anderson who fired wide from 25 yards.
Ajax were looking the better team at this point and the Dutch fans were shouting for two possible penalties. Alves and Bartra were looking particularly uncertain in defence and it was often left to Mascherano and Alba to save the day. After one insistant attack from Ajax half way through the first half Ter Stegen needed to save from Klaasen’s 20 yard volley.
Little by little Barça began to put some order to the game and began to create some danger. Suarez had a shot deflected for a corner, then in the 31st minute Messi threaded a pass between van Rhijn and Veltman to leave Alba one-on-one against Cillessen but the keeper did well to make a low save. Three minutes later a quick Barça break ended with Veltman receiving his first yellow card of the night for bringing down Neymar. Messi fired the free-kick close to the post but Cillessen read it well to push the ball away to the left. Alba crossed the ball back in but it came out to Alves who hit a hopeful lob into the right side of the area. It looked like a lost cause but Bartra had stayed forward and he ran for the ball, Cillessen came out but misjudged his run allowing Bartra the chance to hook the ball into the middle and Messi beat Veltman in the jump and headed past Van Rhijn on the line. It was the break Barça needed to control the game better but the first half ended with more yellow cards as Moisander, Alba and Alves all went in the referee’s book.
The second half saw Messi move to the right with Suarez employed as an out-and-out centre-forward and Barça could now slow the game and let Ajax do the chasing. There was a generally calm start to the half but in the 56th minute there was a scare when it looked like Alba had brought down El-Ghazi in what would have been a certain second yellow, though the replay suggested the ref may have got it right as El-Ghazi appeared to look for the collision with the Barça left-back as he started his run. Alba was needed soon after to mop up after a good series of Ajax passes penetrated into the Barça area.
Suarez had a quiet game but he had his chance to score in the 59th minute after Messi worked the space to send the Uruguayan through. For the second time of the night Cillessen won the one-on-one, holding his ground well to block, Messi, following-up, fired narrowly wide from 20 yards. Five minutes later Suarez did well to control Neymar’s pass but then instead of shooting he sent in an innocent cross which was easily cleared.
Ajax were on the back foot but they weren’t out of it yet. In the 67th minute a poor clearance from Xavi fell to Serero who curled in a quick cross and Milik sent a diving header against the base of the post. However, things got a lot more difficult for the Dutch team four minutes later when Messi gave Serero the slip and Veltman was forced to make an illegal block which earned the defender a second yellow card an another early bath following his sending-off in last season’s game.
Pedro was brought on in place of Neymar and almost immediately he was setting up Messi for his record-equalling goal. Boilesen gifted the ball to Rakitic in midfield, Messi then set off on a run infield before finding Pedro on the left and darting into the middle to poke the substitute’s low cross over the line. With Ajax’s ten men tiring Barça could have added more. Cillessen was alert to stop a long shot from Rakitic and Pedro headed wide from Alves’s cross. Messi went looking for a hat-trick and record-breaking goal but Moisander was twice on hand to make important blocks.
This was a positive reaction after the defeats to Madrid and Celta but it was still a long way from an inspiring performance. The first half was again a little chaotic and it wasn’t until after Messi’s first goal that we began to settle down. Alves continued with another erratic performance and Rakitic was again disappointing. However, there was a lot more order in second half and it was a big improvement on last season’s game when Tata Martino’s team lost for the first time of the season which led to a rapid decline thereafter.
Ajax: Cillessen; Van Rhijn, Veltman, Moisander, Boilesen; Klaasen, Serero (Denswill m80), Anderson (Riedeweld m72); El Ghazi, Sigthorsson (Milik m62), Schöne.
Barça: Ter Stegen 7; Alves 5 (Adriano m83, 6), Bartra 6, Mascherano 7, Alba 7.5; Rakitic 5 (Rafinha m80, 6), Busquets 6, Xavi 6.5; Suarez 5.5, Messi 8, Neymar 6.5 (Pedro m75, 6.5).
Goals: m36 Messi 0-1, m76 Messi 0-2.
Yellow cards: m8 Mascherano, m9 El-Ghazi, m34 Veltman, m39 Moisander, m42 Alba, m45 Alves, m71 Veltman (2nd = red),