x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Barcelona's Lionel Messi now has 62 Champions League goals, which is just nine short of the record.

Barcelona’s Neymar, centre, tries to pass Ajax’s Christian Poulsen, left, and Ricardo van Rhijn in Spain on Wednesday night. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo
Barcelona’s Neymar, centre, tries to pass Ajax’s Christian Poulsen, left, and Ricardo van Rhijn in Spain on Wednesday night. Emilio Morenatti / AP Photo

Barcelona 4 Ajax 0

Barcelona: Messi 22’, 55’, 75’, Pique 69’

Man of the match: Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Barcelona // A first clash between two football giants and a first Champions League game for Barcelona’s new coach Tata Martino. Apart from that, much was predictable about the Catalans’ 4-0 victory over Ajax.

Barcelona won and Lionel Messi scored. Three times. He is now on 62 Champions League goals, nine short of Raul’s record. Messi’s opener, a 22st-minute free kick, which struck the post before entering Kenneth Vermeer’s goal, was the game changer befitting his status as the planet’s best player.

His 55th-minute second came from a cross-field Sergio Busquets pass. Messi cut inside Stefano Denswil before shooting. Gerard Pique got the third, a header on 69 minutes, before Messi bagged a 75th-minute hat-trick.

Despite the heavy defeat and a penalty miss from Kolbeinn Sigthorsson with 14 minutes left, Ajax will take encouragement from their endeavour. Manager Frank de Boer, a former Barcelona player, promised his side would come to play football and they did.

Through little fault of their own, Ajax have become perennial slow starters. They lose their best players each close season and replacements need time to settle. Christian Eriksen left for Tottenham Hotspur, Toby Alderweireld for Atletico Madrid, Ryan Babel for Turkey. Losing captain Siem de Jong’s punctured lung last month hardly helped.

Of Wednesday night’s XI, only Lerin Duarte was purchased in the summer. Dutch champions in each of the past three seasons, Ajax seldom buy established stars as replacements, but loan or promote from within by scouting emerging talents. Why? Three years ago, Real Madrid beat Ajax 2-0. It could have been seven. Johan Cruyff wrote a column in a Dutch newspaper headlined: “This isn’t Ajax any more”.

Stating that he wanted Ajax back at the top of the European game, Cruyff became involved again, not in an official position. He populated the Ajax board with allies and former players, such as Edwin Van der Sar and Marc Overmars.

Cruyff’s Ajax focused on youth development and buying brilliant 16-year-old players from Europe. Ajax is that work in progress.

When he is asked by fans as to when his methods will bring European success, Cruyff answers: “Tomorrow.” But can the four-time European champions repeat past glories when they are in the middle of football’s food chain?

They know their best players will be picked off at 22 or 23, but Ajax plan to bring them to maturity at 19 or 20 and enjoy them for three years before selling at a profit.

If Cruyff is idealistic, Frank De Boer is realistic. He said that he wanted to retain the Eredivisie, that progress in Europe depended on the draw as well as retaining players.

Unkindly paired with AC Milan, Barcelona and Celtic, third place in the group and access to the Europa League is realistic. That is where Ajax finished in each of the past two seasons – ahead of Manchester City last term.

Before they fell apart in the second half, De Boer’s side created chances – the best a 29th-minute Ricardo Van Rhijn header came from a Duarte pass that split the Catalan defence.

The 3,000 travelling fans enjoyed their debut at Camp Nou. The home fans applauded Ajax’s passing game. They were not being patronising, but showing their appreciation for Ajax trying to play.

Higher-ranked teams aren’t brave enough to do that at Camp Nou, but they avoid 4-0 hammerings.

sports@thenational.ae