Messi celebrates one of his three goals / PHOTO: MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB

FC Barcelona have made a great start to their European campaign.  A Messi hat trick plus a Piqué header from Neymar’s corner kick sealed a convincing win for FC Barcelona in the opening game of the group stage.   Ajax started in great style but were overwhelmed as Barça grew in strength throughout the match, led by the goals of Leo Messi and the saves of Victor Valdés.  The keeper twice prevented an Ajax equaliser and then stopped a penalty with the score at 4-0.

The result puts Barça at the top of their Champions League group, tied on points with AC Milan, who beat Celtic 2-0 in the San Siro.  The next match will be in Scotland, where Barça lost 2-1 a year ago.

Two teams, one idea

Tonight witnessed a match between two teams with the same footballing philosophy.  Ajax were not intimidated by the imposing surroundings and applied a style of football so reminiscent of Barça: a willingness to play the ball out from defence, a desire to keep possession, and pressure high up on the opposing defence.  For Barça it was an unusual experience – few teams dare to challenge Barça with such tactics in the Camp Nou itself.

Messi breaks the deadlock

Although Barça did not have things all their own way in the early minutes, the first and best chances fell to Martino’s players.  Neymar Jr tested Vermeer in the Ajax goal, but the Dutch keeper handled well.  But it was Messi who broke the deadlock in the 21st minute with a free kick to the bottom left corner to make it 1-0 for FC Barcelona.

Despite the setback, Ajax kept their composure and could have had a couple goals themselves before half time.  Valdés pulled off two great saves from Van Rhijn and Duarte. Neymar Jr almost got one himself before the break but when half time arrived the result was still very much undecided.

A hat trick for Messi

The second half was very different.  Ajax were unable to keep the ball as Barça showed a tougher and more intense side to their game.  A textbook counterattack led by Busquets ended in Messi’s second goal of the evening.  And then just four minutes later a Piqué goal put the three points almost beyond doubt, the central defender heading in from a Neymar corner.

Valdés keeps a clean sheet

But there was more to come.  First, Messi capitalized on the sustained Barça pressure to complete his hat trick.  Then Valdés stopped a Sigthorsson penalty kick awarded for a foul by Mascherano.  The end of a great European opener for FC Barcelona.