A brilliant Lionel Messi hat-trick, which leaves him within ten goals of overtaking Raúl González as the all-time UEFA Champions League top scorer, fuelled a powerful 4-0 win for FC Barcelona over AFC Ajax.
Gerard Piqué's second-half header added gloss but goalkeeper Víctor Valdés also earned an honourable mention for a string of good saves including from Kolbeinn Sigthórsson's 77th-minute penalty. The resulting Group H victory was the perfect introduction to the UEFA Champions League for Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino on matchday one.
There was a different sense of history right from the start as Frank de Boer's team began playing the patient, intelligent football for which they are historically famous – and which has inspired Barcelona from the days of the former coaches they share with Ajax: Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels and, of course, Johan Cruyff.
Even if Neymar and Andrés Iniesta showed their intention of carrying the threat to Kenneth Vermeer's goalmouth at every possible occasion, the Dutch champions weathered the storm as best they could and started to construct good chances of their own. Nevertheless they were forced to do that from a position of deficit thanks to the man of the moment – in fact, of 62 such moments.
When Lerin Duarte committed a needless foul 25 metres from goal, immediately there was a sense of the inevitable. Messi is nothing if not an immensely competitive young man – all his fabulous talent aside – and seasoned watchers of the Barça No10 were widely predicting he would react to Cristiano Ronaldo's terrific treble for Real Madrid CF in Istanbul the previous night. He stepped up and scored, in the 22nd minute, with all the ease others would show for a one-metre tap-in.
Much as Martino's team looked at ease and worked hard after the breakthrough, the truth was that the visitors could have hit back twice, and indeed led, by half-time. Bojan Krkić, back at Camp Nou on loan with Ajax, bent a long raking cross from left to right on the half-hour and when Ricardo van Rhijn stooped to head on goal, it needed a top-quality reaction stop from Valdés. Then, before the break, a quick flowing move from the Amsterdam side ended with a firm drive into Valdés's midriff from Duarte.
That proved enough of an invitation for Messi to take charge. Playing with electric confidence he added the second on 55 minutes. Sergio Busquets broke forward, committed defenders and laid on a pass for the Argentinian maestro to skip around defender Stefano Denswil and score. Emphasis that this was the Blaugrana's night came when Neymar, on his competition debut, crossed a well-flighted assist which Piqué nodded over Vermeer with just over 20 minutes left.
The icing on the cake, from a deft Xavi Hernández assist, was Messi's slide-rule finish into the bottom corner for his third, Barça's fourth. The goal was his 62nd in the UEFA Champions League – and a move closer to all-time history.
©UEFA.com 1998-2014. All rights reserved.