Barcelona got their Champions League campaign back on track with a 3-1 victory over Ajax at the Camp Nou. After going down to Luis Enrique’s first, and still only, defeat in charge at Paris Saint-Germain three weeks ago, a win was required against the Dutch champions on Tuesday. Early goals from in-form duo Neymar and Lionel Messi went a long way to securing the desired result before Barcelona took their foot off the gas in the second half ahead of the first El Clasico of the season on Saturday. While, the visitors pulled a goal back late on through substitute Anwar El Ghazi, Barcelona almost immediately responded to secure the win when their own substitute, Sandro Ramirez finished stylishly.
PSG’s win over APOEL Nicosia means that Barcelona remain second in Group F, a point back of the French champions. But a win over Ajax in Amsterdam in two weeks’ time and Enrique’s men are likely to secure their place in the last 16 with two matches still remaining. This was a victory that almost went entirely to plan for Enrique against an Ajax side managed by his former teammate Frank de Boer. Xavi was left on the bench, seemingly with one eye on the meeting with Real Madrid, and it was clear that there was a desire to get star men Neymar and Messi to join him as soon as possible.
It was that pair that did much to put the game under Barcelona’s control. The deadlock was broken just seven minutes in with a trademark Barcelona goal. Messi exchanged passes at lightning speed first with Ivan Rakitic and then with Pedro, before feeding in Neymar in his familiar inside left position. Without hesitation the Brazilian struck what is becoming an equally familiar clinical side-foot finish for his 10th goal of the season.
Messi should have made it 2-0 shortly after, but uncharacteristically shot over from just inside the box. Still, it was not long before the Argentine got on the scoresheet for his sixth match in succession. Ajax sloppily gave the ball straight to Javier Mascherano, playing in midfield in place of Sergio Busquets, who quickly found Andres Iniesta. The World Cup winner then played a pass of the highest quality to find Messi running in from the right to provide a first-time finish that had just had enough on it to sneak past a disappointed Jasper Cillessen.
Barcelona should have had the result sealed by the interval. Pedro struck the foot of the post with a presentable chance and then Iniesta was denied a truly brilliant goal when Cillessen atoned for his earlier failing with a fine block after the Barcelona midfielder waltzed his way through the Ajax backline.
Enrique still appeared comfortable with his side’s lead and both Neymar and Messi were withdrawn in quick succession just past the hour mark. That decision looked like it might come back to haunt him when Ajax pulled one back in the 88th minute -- the first goal conceded by Barcelona at the Camp Nou since Enrique took the reins. Barcelona’s defense was found wanting in missing several chances to clear the ball in the penalty area to allow El Ghazi to scuff a shot into the net.
Instead all was made well again when one of the youngsters to have been given their breakthrough this season, Sandro, capitalized on Ajax pushing for an equalizer when he took Rafinha’s pass down the outside of a defender and hit a precise left-footed shot into the far corner of the net.