Ajax may have re-established its Eredivisie dominance, as Frank de Boer has put a fresh polish on the old Ajax ways en route to three consecutive titles in the top Dutch division.
But a trip into the daunting Nou Camp, once more packed with almost 100,000 Blaugrana supporters, was too much for a young Ajax team, one once again stripped of its top talent in the annual transfer window raid on Holland’s most famous club.
Too bad, too, because this was such an intriguing matchup, one between two clubs so historically linked, and clubs that attempt to play the same way, while also remaining similarly reliant on youth development through their heralded academies. (Fox Soccer’s Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote about the close ties of today and yesterday here.)
Indeed, they may be stylistic kindred spirits, having birthed their games through some of the same tactical DNA, but Barca and Ajax are hardly playing the same game these days. (Haven’t been for a while, in fact.) Ajax players, gifted as they are, just cannot match Barca’s technical aptitude nor the collective wit – especially not when playing as the visitors in Catalonia.
Not that Ajax looked completely overwhelmed. For about 15 minutes right in the middle of Wednesday’s match, de Boer’s team created the better chances. Ricardo Van Rhijn came close on a diving header and Lerin Duarte probably could have done better with a lash from 18 yards right in the middle, both chances not long after the 30-minute mark.
In the end, Leo Messi’s fourth career hat trick help carry his Blaugrana steadily away in a 4-0 night at the Camp Nou.
New Blaugrana manager Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, the Argentine committed to re-establishing a Barca press that lost just a bit of its edge last year, felt comfortable enough to rest longtime Nou Camp midfield staple Xavi. Martino preferred the much younger Cesc Fabregas, knowing that Xavi, 33, will need strategic resting along the way. Indeed, Barca’s first match in tournament group play seems like a logical spot.
Barcelona did control things early, and Messi’s unstoppable free kick in the 21st minute brought the inevitable breakthrough. Neymar, along the left in Barca’s fluid 4-3-3, had been the most effective Barca man early, but it was Messi who drew the telling foul.
Later, Messi was sure to score on a 54th-minute counter attack, as Alexis Sanchez’s swell run inside freed the club’s Argentine star to waltz in along the right for a 2-0 lead. That one seemed to break the Ajax will.
It was hardly a perfect night from the Catalan giants, who lacked a certain urgency and sharpness for big stretches. Alexis and Fabregas seemed unusually subdued, Javier Mascherano was sloppy with too many of his passes from the back line and Dani Alves seemed reluctant to shoot.
In the end, goalkeeper Blaugrana ‘keeper Victor Valdes needed a big night just to keep the clean sheet.