If it wasn’t for Leo Messi the feeling was that Barça and Ajax could have played for a dozen or so years without either team scoring. An epitome of passing, positional play and that oh so modern idea of “defence through possession” and all done exquisitely, but without the Argentinean’s special sauce the whole thing would be worryingly inoffensive. Messi got a hat-trick, the first player in the Champions league to get four. Add to that Valdés’ superb form and it’s clear that no matter how confused his team is Martino has calculated that with Messi dealing out hammer blows and Valdes unbeatable, things will always turn out well for Barcelona.
The Catalans are going through a bizarre mutation which brings them ever closer to the Madrid galactic. They’ve gone from being a team based on passing to one defined by the start and the finish. That’s backed up by having a great goalkeeper in Valdés and an out of this world striker in Messi. The rest though aren’t that important, when not long ago it was all about them.
The match against Ajax was a chance for Barça to re-find their roots. Their opponents let them play, didn’t pressure them much (and when they did it was poor), and were as innocent as Heidi in front of goal. It was a like a bowl of sweeties, but nobody wanted one, until Messi decided to munch them down. What’s even more incredible is that he scored a hat-trick while giving the impression that he’s at 40 per cent. The difference between the Argentine’s triple and Cristiano’s on Tuesday is that to score three the Portuguese needed to produce an outstanding exhibition, while Messi scored his while walking, with an economy of movement from a different age.
Based on the solid rock of Valdés and the efficiency of Messi, Barça had their noses in front in the first half through an inch perfect free-kick from Messi after 20 minutes. It was the only solution they could find to a game that they were finding tough to chew. Neither Neymar or Cesc could find the change of rhythm to break through.
In fact it was Ajax who created the chances but Valdés frustrated their every attempt, including saving a penalty late on. Ten minutes after the second half started Messi, walking, found a path through the Ajax defence to score his second and put the game more or less to bed.
Piqué then scored a good header from a whipped Neymar cross and Messi once again stopped time and stroked home to add the flourish to the scoreboard, but nobody should be fooled. This is a team that is undergoing a radical change and nobody knows how it will end up. For now with Valdés at the back and Messi up front it works. Against Ajax.