Ajax was no match for FC Barcelona on Tuesday evening. In the third UEFA Champions League group match, Ajax went down, 3-1. After goals by Neymar and Messi before the break, it became exciting a few minutes before the end when El Ghazi scored the 2-1 goal. In the final seconds, Sergio Ramirez expanded on the lead. Still, Ajax left Camp Nou with their heads held high.
What may have begun as a hopeless mission ended with an exciting finale. Barcelona, who was much stronger, started the evening in the same way as many other evenings in Camp Nou. Via goals from Neymar and Messi in the first half hour, Barcelona seemed poised to coast through the evening effortlessly. But due to the long interval until the third goal, Ajax was spared an even bigger defeat. Their steadfast belief in themselves – preached beforehand by Frank de Boer – surfaced in the final minutes when Ajax scored. It was only Barcelona’s fourth goal against (and the first in their own stadium) in the first eleven official matches of this season. Thanks to that ingredient, it was also, from an Ajax perspective, a great night visiting the absolute world-class football team.
De Boer faced a puzzle with his line-up. Due to the absence of Nicolai Boilesen (concussion) and Thulani Serero (hamstring), Nick Viergever started as left back just as he had against FC Twente, and Niki Zimling took on the role of controller. At FC Barcelona, the complete star ensemble kept up with Lionel Messi, Neymar and captain Andrés Iniesta. Luis Suarez was sitting out the last match of his suspension and will be making his much-awaited Barca debut during El Clásico in Madrid this weekend.
Earlier in the day, the outlines of the future of Ajax and Barcelona could be seen in the under 19 match between the clubs at the nearby Mini Estadi. Johan Cruijff was an attentive spectator at the UEFA Youth League duel, which ended in a 2-2 draw, following an 2-0 lead for Ajax. That evening, they joined the 2.000 Ajax fans in Camp Nou.
Ajax had some glimmers of hope beforehand. One point, never mind a win in Camp Nou, would be an upset of the highest order. But the two meetings between the teams last season gave Frank de Boer hope. The 2-1 win in Amsterdam and the 4-0 loss in Spain (after a good first half) showed that Ajax could compete with Barcelona. “But in order to beat this Barça, we need to be in top shape for the whole match”, said the Ajax coach. And this was not the case. Barcelona served up their world-famous tiki-taka in a compelling, and very effective, show.
The hosts picked up steam quickly on Tuesday evening and set the stage early on for a simple win. In the seventh minute, they had already scored when Neymar, on a Messi pass, shot into the goal: 1-0. It was the just reward after a perfectly executed attack. After the opening goal, it was Barcelona who applied pressure. This resulted in a second goal midway through the first half. After Zimling’s loss of possession, Iniesta sent a pass to Messi, who then scored his 69th Champions League goal: 2-0. When Pedro Rodríguez sent a shot against the post, Ajax counted its blessings that the score wasn’t 3-0 after just thirty minutes.
It was only in the last moments before halftime that Ajax were somewhat threatening in front of Barcelona’s goal. Kishna (at the back line, against Piqué), Zimling (long distance shot) and Sightórsson (shot which changed direction) made the Ajax fans in the visitors’ stands happy. The Amsterdam offensive was dwarfed by the opportunity that Iniesta had a few minutes before the break. The man who had hoisted Spain to the World title in 2010, but through the defense’s heart and found Jasper Cillessen in his way. Thanks to a great save by the Ajax keeper, the damage before the break was limited to two goals.
In the second half, Barça continued to apply pressure to the defense. It wouldn’t have mattered if Messi had added another two goals to his count within five minutes. First, his goal was disqualified due to offside, and two minutes later a quick attack ended with a shot into the side net. And that was all for Messi. Just like Neymar, the Argentine was substituted midway through the second half.
Piqué provided a frightening moment when he shot an attempt from substitute Arek Milik over his own goal. Added in to Van Rhijn’s shot (side net) and an attempt by Klaassen from a great position (over), those were the Ajax opportunities. Until the 87th minute. Then, three substitutes took centre stage. Jairo Riedewals (first CL debut-maker since the win in 1995) and Milik coordinated an attack which was crowned by Anwar El Ghazi. This resulted in a 2-1 score just before the end. When El Ghazi created danger in the next attack, all Ajax pulses quickened. The margin was brought back to one goal for a while. Barcelona had the last word. Sergio Ramirez finalized the score, 3-1.