Ajax began their latest UEFA Champions League adventure on Wednesday with fresh, gutsy play, but lost nonetheless to FC Barcelona. In a lively Nou Camp, where 2256 Ajax fans were among the crowd, the first official meeting between the clubs ended at 4-0. Lionel Messi struck three times against the fearless, confident team from Amsterdam.
How do you make it as difficult as possible for FC Barcelona to play in front of their home crowd? In his early training career, coach Frank de Boer has always stood for simple assignments. The Ajax coach surprised both friends and enemies with a new role for Nicolai Boilesen. The Dane played on left offense, while Daley Blind played at Boilsen’s ‘regular’ position as left back. The other noteworthy positions were loaned out Barça player Bojan Krkic and Kolbeinn Sightórsson as pure attackers and Christian Poulsen as midfield controller. Siem de Jong’s spot on the squad (‘I hope he can make it for an hour’) had been announced by De Boer several days before. Opponent Barcelona was forced to play the CL opener without the injured defender Carles Puyol and Jordi Alba.
Ajax’s play before the break was reminiscent of previous Champions League matches against Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City. In and against Dortmund, the Amsterdam team lost, despite a strong performance. Against the Citizens, both in London and the ArenA, the team’s offensive focus delivered tangible success. For an hour, Ajax played the way coach Frank de Boer had demanded days before the meeting against Barcelona. They applied constant pressure, sought the boundaries, exhibited fluid position play on the fine grass field, and showed confidence. These were all elements that De Boer had stressed beforehand. FC Barcelona was thus put under pressure, but Ajax was clearly outclassed at times. In the opening minutes, Niklas Moisander was already forced to clean up, after a dangerous attempt by Andres Iniesta. The tone had been set.
One such moment of pure class resulted in the Catalan team taking a 1-0 lead after twenty minutes of play. After a Lerin Duarte foul on Lionel Messi, the latter took revenge at the next possible opportunity. The Argentine wonder child pivoted the ball beautifully past Kenneth Vermeer, via the post, from about twenty meters out. The fear that Messi’s goal would launch a veritable shower of goals proved to be unfounded until the break, and even shortly after that. In fact, Ajax seemed unfazed by this beautiful play by the world class star.
With a bit more good fortune, a tying goal would have been possible before the break. After half an hour, Ricardo van Rhijn saw his header, on a beautiful pass from Bojan, turned away by Victor Valdes. Six minutes later, it was Duarte’s – making his CL debut – turn to take a shot. The midfielder sent his attempt into Valdes’ hands. In between the Ajax opportunities, Vermeer held his own by making saves against attempts by Messi and the Brazilian star Neymar. “I’m very pleased with the first half”, said De Boer after the match. “We had just as many opportunities as Barcelona, and continued to play good football.”
Phenomenal Messi brought Ajax one more goal down after the break; 2-0. Launched by team mate Sergio Busquets, the seemingly untouchable Argentine cut through to the inside, and, once out of reach of both his guard Stefano Denswil and Vermeer, he scored a crystal clear goal.
Ajax’s zeal for the match came at a cost, as it appeared in the last quarter of the Barça – Ajax show. The guests’ fuel tank was prematurely depleted. With defender Piqué’s 3-0 goal (header, assisted by Neymar), the defeat took on disappointing proportions.
Barça’s fourth goal, Messi’s third of the evening, was a lesson in efficiency. Lionel Messi shot between Poulsen and substitute Mike van der Hoorn (replacing Moisander) flawlessly into the corner: 4-0. An exquisite opportunity to answer back was unfortunately squandered. After a foul on Serero, Sigthórsson saw his shot turned away by the outstanding Valdes. “I thought that we gave away too much space in the second half”, said De Boer. “In the end, it cost us four goals, and that’s painful. We need to stay positive and look ahead to the next game.” The coach was satisfied with his modified line-up. “I thought that Boilesen did a good job on left flank. You know that he’s strong in terms of possession and always stays cool. You need that against this kind of team. Bojan played a good first half. This was perhaps his best match in an Ajax jersey.”
Ajax was a bold counterpart to the world class players of FC Barcelona for forty-five minutes. But against a player of Messi’s caliber, there wasn’t much they could do in this first round Champions League match. And losing to Lionel Messi is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
Keep an eye on Ajax TV for highlights of FC Barcelona – Ajax, and post-game reactions from coach Frank de Boer and a few Ajax players.