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First half scores from Barça’s lethal one-two punch of Lionel Messi and Neymar Jr gave the home side everything they would need, as a near total dominance of the ball kept Ajax safely at bay.
In a match featuring a pair of sides with long, intertwined histories and similar playing styles, it was FC Barcelona who showed they were master of their domain.
Despite a common past, this was just the third meeting ever between the clubs. Last year they split while clashing, like this year, in the UEFA Champions League group stage. By the end of the game, however, there was little doubt that Barça were the better squad.
The match opened on a balmy evening in Barcelona, with the host crowd quietly observing as their team were in complete control while their opponent could barely muster a touch.
However, nothing gets the fans into it like an early score. It was precisely in the 6th minute that Barça turned a typical long-winded possession into a deadly attack. Messi took the ball from Pedro Rodriguez around 30 metres from the Ajax goal and danced, in typical fashion, right through two flatfooted defenders. He darted toward the net and reached the edge of the area before dishing to his left, finding a wide open Neymar who coolly one-timed with his right foot back across the goal mouth, curling the ball into the upper right corner for the early lead. It was a complex shot that he made look effortless.
Down 1-0, Ajax started to press. They hustled and chased but to no avail. Barça continued to hold possession. In the 12th minute, Messi took a ball from Neymar at the spot and pulled the trigger, putting it just over the crossbar. After Neymar’s opening score, the Argentinean superstar was eager to get one for himself. In the 23rd minute it came.
With Ajax fighting to clear upfield after yet another deep Barcelona attack, Javier Mascherano intercepted a pass around midfield and fed directly to Andres Iniesta, slicing into the zone. Iniesta dribbled in on the area and found Messi, tightly covered by a pair of defenders. As only Messi can do, in one motion he deftly controlled the pass and shot low. Ajax keeper Jasper Cillessen got his hand on it but the ball trickled just inside the right post for a 2-0 Barça lead. Ajax, on the other hand, still had yet to record a shot on goal.
The second half went by with more of the same. Barça controlled the ball with their opponent only slightly improving. Ajax found it difficult to string together enough passes to create danger and claw back into the match. There were few opportunities for either side. Barça looked to be counting the minutes and Ajax looked resigned to a less than palatable result.
As the clock wound down, the home stretch brought a pair of surprises. In the 86th minute, Barça failed to fully clear. When play came back into the area the Barça defence stood tall. A loose ball ended up at the feet of Ajax’s Anwar El Ghazi who got just enough on his shot. At 2-1, things suddenly got interesting.
Injury time came and the nervousness of the home crowd grew. But just as Ajax were looking for the equaliser, Barça took advantage of a more open field. Pedro and Rafinha combined nicely to find a lurking Sandro, who sent his ball into the net for a 92nd minute goal that drew a collective sigh of relief and sealed the victory for Barça.
The result leaves Barça comfortably in second place in Group F with six points. Ajax are third with two points and Apoel are fourth with one point. For the moment, Paris Sant-Germain lead the group with seven points.
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