THE Barcelona manager Luis Enrique described Leo Messi as â€œthe best player I have seen in my whole lifeâ€ after he equalled Raul as the all-time leading scorer in the European Cup with two goals against Ajax that saw FC Barcelona progress to the knockout phase of the Champions League. Luis SuÃ¡rez returned to his former home and said that while he would feel like â€œletting goâ€ if he scored his first goal for Barcelona he would not celebrate. Messi had no such dilemma. He scored his 70th and 71st goals in this competition alone.
Ultimately, this was a comfortable victory and a necessary one for a team under pressure after losing two in a row. It had not always seemed that way as Ajax threatened in the first half, but the second was a different story. It could have been an even bigger story too: SuÃ¡rez missed a wonderful chance to get his first goal and there were moments when it looked like Messi might get his third of the night and claim the record outright.
Barcelona took the lead in the 36th minute. Messiâ€™s 20-yard free-kick had been pushed away by Jasper Cillessen but reaching the loose ball first Jordi Alba crossed and when the clearance fell to Dani Alves, he looped it back into the area, sending it bouncing into the air. Cillessen came for it, a long way from his line, and missed it. Barcelonaâ€™s Marc Bartra got to it before him and hooked it roughly towards the six-yard box, where Messiâ€™s header squeezed over the line.
It was Messiâ€™s 70th goal in the European Cup, putting him level with Cristiano Ronaldo. The record will surely alternate between the pair of them for some time to come.
If there was something about the goal that was a little unconvincing there was something about Barcelona that was too. The genesis of it had been an Ajax attack and they had been growing in frequency and intensity. As Messi had lined up to take the free-kick, won from a break away while Anwar El Ghazi lay on the floor in the opposite area, the shot count read Ajax 6 Barcelona 2. The ball was Ajaxâ€™s too; Barcelona had less than half of the possession, enjoying just 48%. â€œWe made a game of it in the first half,â€ Frank de Boer, the Ajax coach, said later. â€œItâ€™s a shame we werenâ€™t rewarded for our good play.â€
Luis Enrique had described Ajax as a brave team and on that he was proved right. Lucas Andersen and El Ghazi ran at Barcelona and the pressure built. One shot appeared to be handled by Alba and a neat exchange saw Davy Klaassen draw a sharp save from Claudio Bravo. At that point Sergio Busquets did not exercise control and Ivan Rakitic was rarely involved, although Xavi was recognisably Xavi.
Up front, with SuÃ¡rez on the right, Messi in the middle and Neymar on the left, danger materialised only very rarely.
The second half brought a shift that was swiftly apparent. Messi had moved right where he combined with Xavi and Alves; the ball was moving quicker and it was mostly moving between players in yellow. Barcelona gained control and conviction. They should have increased their lead, too. Messi slotted a ball through the middle for SuÃ¡rez, one on one against Cillessen, but his shot was a poor one, easily saved.
Although the sensation had changed, the precariousness of Barcelonaâ€™s lead was revealed soon after when Thulani Sereroâ€™s curled cross found Arkadiusz Milik, who had come on for Kolbein Sigthorsson. His diving header hit a post. If that concerned them, JoÃ©l Veltmanâ€™s second yellow card minutes later brought comfort.
Closure arrived almost immediately. Veltman was not the only man to depart. Luis Enrique sent on Pedro for Neymar and his first contribution was a decisive one. Messi dashed across the front of the area, right to left, spread the ball to Pedro on the left and he pulled it back for Messi. The Argentinian had kept running and he slid in to finish on the edge of the six-yard box.
A moment of clarity had brought the contest to an end and qualification was Barcelonaâ€™s. – The Guardian