Lionel Messi scored twice to equal the Champions League goal-scoring record and give Barcelona a 2-0 victory over Ajax in Amsterdam on Tuesday to secure their passage to the knockout round. Messi headed into an unguarded net after an error from Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen in the 36th minute and then moved level with Real Madrid legend Raul on 71 goals by turning in Pedro’s cross late on after Ajax had been reduced to 10 men by Joel Veltman’s second yellow card.
The win moves Barcelona onto nine points from four games and means they advance to the knockout phase alongside group leaders Paris Saint-Germain. Meanwhile, Ajax will exit the Champions League at the group phase for the fifth consecutive season.
For much of the contest the Dutch champions had looked capable of getting a result to keep their hopes alive heading into the final two matches. Even after a breakdown at the back allowed Messi to open the scoring, Ajax substitute Arkadiusz Milik missed a glorious chance to pull them level. But once Veltman had been sent on his way, just as he had been against Barcelona at the Amsterdam Arena last season, Ajax’s hopes had faded. Barcelona, featuring former Ajax star Luis Suarez, remained short of the force coach Luis Enrique surely expects they will become, but still had enough quality to get the job done. That was true of Messi, in particular, who produced a typical flash of brilliance to seal the win with 14 minutes remaining.
Messi’s incredible haul has come in just 90 games, 46 less than Raul and 16 less than Cristiano Ronaldo, who now sits third on the list with 70. He had an earlier chance to level the Portuguese’s mark as Barcelona twice came close to taking advantage of Ajax’s questionable high defensive line in the opening five minutes. Messi was just unable to get onto Xavi’s fine through pass, while Neymar did have the ball in the net, but the man who supplied a square pass into his path, Jordi Alba, had just been caught offside.
After a slow start from the hosts, Ajax enjoyed plenty of the play in the opening half. With Barcelona often sitting off rather than pressing, Frank de Boer’s side impressively demonstrated their ability to adhere to the club’s passing traditions. On a couple of occasions they posed a threat to Barcelona’s goal, too. Lucas Andersen fired a shot just wide from 20 yards, while, after a clever one-two on the edge of the box, Davy Klaasen hit a well-struck volley that forced Marc-Andre ter Stegen to make a smart save low to his left.
At the other end Barcelona were only playing in patches. The front three clearly remains a work in progress, with the lack of clarity in their positioning shown in particular by Suarez’s repeated hand gestures toward his teammates. But the effort from Klaasen sparked Barcelona into greater life.
Yet it was a most un-Barcelona-like goal that gave them the lead. Cillessen did well to beat away a Messi free-kick but then left himself stranded when he came out to meet Marc Bartra as the defender raced onto a lofted pass past an advancing defense hoping in vain for an offside flag. Bartra, selected in place of Gerard Pique, beat Cillessen to the ball and lifted it back into the danger zone, where Messi rose above a defender to send a header bouncing over the line and into unguarded net. Goal number 70 for Messi was just his fourth in the Champions League with his head.
Toward the end of the opening half, Suarez, who often looked uncomfortable toiling down the right flank, switched to a more central position with Messi floating toward the right. And just before the hour mark the two combined for what should have been Suarez’s first goal in a Barcelona shirt. Messi’s pass sent him through on goal, but Suarez never looked set and hit a tame left-footed shot that Cillessen blocked with his legs. Playing in such exalted company, Suarez continues to defer unnecessarily to his star teammates. That was exactly the case when the Uruguayan found the ball bouncing at his feet on the left of the box with goalkeeper Cillessen caught off his line. In the red of Liverpool, a delicate chip, and likely a goal, would have been forthcoming. Instead, he looked for a colleague in the middle and the ball was cleared.
The profligacy was not to matter on this occasion, thanks to Milik’s missed header just minutes after coming off the bench. Messi was starting to find his top gear, and while Veltman dragged him down to earn a second yellow, no Ajax player could catch up with him as he made it 2-0. The four-time world player of the year surged past a defender and toward the edge of the box, before laying it off to Pedro and continuing his run into the box to meet the recent introduced substitute’s cross and claim goal 71.