Lionel Messi struck a superb hat-trick to lead Barcelona to a 4-0 victory over Ajax and begin the Spanish champions’ quest to regain the Champions League in fine style. There was much history to be admired in this matchup between two of Europe’s historic giants which have had rich links over the years. Yet the match at the Camp Nou showed the gap in quality that has grown between the sides in recent years.
Messi was the man to hammer that advantage home. Just 24 hours after his great rival at the top of the game, Cristiano Ronaldo, had struck a treble, Messi made his own statement. It started in a spectacular fashion with a free-kick before two more fine strikes either side of a Gerard Pique header in the second half.
It was a welcome Champions League debut for coach Gerardo Martino and on a emotional day too with him set to travel back to Argentina after the match to attend the funeral of his father. On the pitch, though, he will be delighted to have gotten the three points with their next match coming against a Celtic team that beat Barcelona in last season’s group stage. Equally pleasing for Martino will likely be that Barcelona kept a clean sheet after conceding four goals in their last two La Liga contests.
As well as Martino, Neymar was also making his first appearance in the Champions League. And the Brazilian produced the first threatening moment of the contest with a shot that Kenneth Vermeer parried away in the Ajax goal.
But it was Messi who soon took center stage. With just over 20 minutes gone, the second highest scorer in Champions League history won a free-kick in a perfect position just to the right of center, 20 yards from goal. Messi duly stepped up and whipped the ball around the Ajax wall and in off the post.
Barcelona would have to wait until 10 minutes after the break to get a second goal that all-but sealed the win. Sergio Busquets led a counter attack with on an uncharacteristic forward burst before passing it onto Messi inside the area and with apparent ease he stepped inside a defender before finishing inside the near post.
With just over 20 minutes to go it was 3-0. Neymar cut back onto his right foot down the left before curling in a cross that Vermeer came and failed to get to, enabling Pique to rise high and head into the unguarded net from six yards out.
And in the 75th minute Messi got his hat-trick. Again the Argentinean almost embarrassed the opposition, this time by a feinting a shot on the edge of the box that fooled two defenders and the goalkeeper, allowing him to place a low shot into the corner with Vermeer unmoved. A bad night was wrapped up for Frank de Boer's side when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson had a late penalty saved by Victor Valdes.