All that mattered, of course, was that there was Lionel Messi, scoring twice and equaling Raul’s UEFA Champions League goal-scoring record with 71 as Barcelona beat Ajax 2-0 on Wednesday.
The Argentine had gotten a scrappy tally in the 36th minute, when he contorted himself acrobatically to beat the Ajax defense to a header and direct it past a diving opponent and into the empty net, after Marc Bartra’s toil had forced goalkeeper Jasper Cillissen into a bad error. And he got the record-tying goal in the 76th minute in classic Messi fashion. This time, he found Pedro running up the edge of the Ajax box and bolted to meet the return pass at the far post and slide it in. It was a score born of brain more than brawn, as the diminutive dribbler continues to belittle bigger and stronger men with ease.
In the end, it seemed natural that Barcelona should win. They have Messi, after all. And that so often proves the difference. Primarily through his doing, the European giants prevailed over once-but-no-longer giants Ajax, no matter how much history and ideological kinship the two clubs share. But it had been close. So much closer than Barca would have liked. Until Messi set them apart, the game had been fairly even. Messi saw to it that Barca’s rare two-game losing streak — league losses against Real Madrid and Celta Vigo, respectively — came to an end though.
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Over the years, 22 players have represented both of these clubs, in addition to several coaches. And the playing system premised on pressing, passing, movement and possession that Ajax pioneered in the 1970s formed the basis for Barca’s latter-day success — as did its blueprint for a youth academy. This promised an open and attacking game, and it was.
At first, Barca was content to let Ajax make the play and to retort on quick counters, letting the Dutch keep the ball high up the field and press aggressively. That yielded some promising attacks, although just a few produced real danger, like when Lucas Andersen pulled a shot just wide in the 18th minute.
Ajax’s 19-year-old winger Anwar El Ghazi, the club’s latest attacking prodigy, gave Barca left back Jordi Alba fits for a time. Quick interchanges between the attackers set up Davy Klaassen for a dipping left-footed volley from inside the box in the 26th minute that provoked a long, sprawling save from Marc-Adnre Ter Stegen. An Ajax shot was then blocked by an arm in the box, but from a very close distance, so the absence of a blown whistle was fair enough.
Ajax did a fine job of clogging up the center of the field, isolating Neymar and his runs up the flanks and taking Luis Suarez — once one of their own — out of the equation entirely. Barca, seemingly unaccustomed to so much attacking intent from their opponents, seemed to grow a tad frustrated. The affair became fairly feisty for a contest between clubs who take pride in their styles and aesthetics above all.
Barca didn’t really show up in front of the Ajax goal — but for a few early plays on which they were rendered offside by Ajax’s high line — until the half-hour mark. That’s when Cillessen made a point-blank kick-save on Alba, who was set up by Messi.
Not much later, Barca went ahead on Messi’s first goal. Ajax felt aggrieved as El Ghazi had been down with an apparent head injury in Barca’s box as the Catalans scampered off for a counter attack. It seemed he had either been punched or kicked in the head in a scramble in the box. Either way, the referee did not stop the play, as the rules prescribed him to, and Barca won a free kick on the edge of Ajax’s box when Neymar was brought down by Joel Veltman. Messi then forced a fine save from Cillessen on the free kick, before the goalie erred on the ensuing play.
That stunted Ajax’s growth in confidence and put Barca on firmer footing. The balance of power shifted and something resembling the natural order was restored. The rich and powerful club delivered the bigger punches. The smaller one was relegated to absorbing the barrage and counter-punching where possible.
In the second half, it didn’t often look like Ajax would recover. Just before the hour, Suarez was put through one-on-one with Cillessen by Messi but he couldn’t get his finish around the goalkeeper. Messi then whipped the rebound wide.
Ajax’s only real chance at equalizing came in the 67th minute, when substitute striker Arkadiusz Milik’s header touched off the outside of the far post after Thulani Serero dropped a cross right onto his head, after an Ajax corner was poorly cleared by Barcelona. Then Veltman left an arm outstretched as Messi dashed by and the Argentine went down. That was Veltman’s second yellow, and off he went. This basically ended the game.
It had, in effect, been decided by Messi, confirmed by Messi and ended by Messi. As so many of Barca’s contests have before. At 27 years of age, his European goal counter stands at 71.