FC Barcelona got their 2013-14 UEFA Champions League run off to a great start as Lionel Messi's hat trick led El Blaugrana past Ajax with a 4-0 score line on Wednesday night.
Messi made it 1-0 on a free kick that hit the post and into the back of the net in the 22nd minute. Leo got a brace in the 55th minute as he danced in the box and made it 2-0. Gerard Pique made it 3-0 thanks to Mr. Shakira's header. Messi completed his hat-trick in the 73rd minute as he gently put the ball low and toward the post, past a struggling Ajax defense, for the 4-0 score line.
Let's look at the Good, Bad, as well as "What We Learned?" from the game.
Good Great: Lionel Messi
Leo had one of those nights that remind us why we are all blessed to be witnessing his talent. Messi now has 62 goals in his Champions League career.
Did I mention he's only 26 years old?
With his hat-trick, Messi became the only player in Champions League history with four hat-tricks in the competition. His three goals moved him past Andriy Shevchenko (59 goals) and Ruud Van Nistelrooy (60 goals) in the all-time CL goal scorer list. Messi is now ten goals away from surpassing Raúl (71 goals) as the all-time CL goal-scoring king.
As Sports Illustrated's own Richard Deitsch said to me via Twitter:
@XoelCardenas More importantly, how about Messi today?— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) September 18, 2013
How about Messi on Wednesday indeed, Richard and all readers!
Anims goes to Cristiano Ronaldo, who can't even get a full 24 hours in the spotlight, as Leo Messi grabbed a hat trick a day after CR7 got his. Messi always puts Ronaldo in his place. And that place is second place.
Bad Good to see: Neymar's CL Debut
I felt Neymar was the straw that stirred the drink in the Ajax game. From the start, Andres Iniesta kept feeding Neymar the ball. It felt like all the attacking plays began on the left side of the pitch. It was Neymar's great cross that found Pique's head to make it 3-0 in the second half. Neymar wasn't nervous, didn't make any major mistakes, and seemed rather comfortable in his CL debut. To be honest with you, we shouldn't have expected to see a jittery Neymar. The kid has experience leading a team through a major continental tournament before with Santos-leading them to the Copa Libertadores title in 2011.
My only concern-not necessarily about Neymar-but rather of FC Barcelona is that this team doesn't keep going to the Neymar well too often, and not just for rest reasons. Yes, Neymar is the best left-winger in the world, in my opinion, but as we've seen with Messi for years now, the Barça attack can't be dependent on one player to create the goals. Neymar helps out Messi, which will pay dividends in the knockout stages, but I am hopeful the right-wing steps up as well. Alexis Sanchez and Pedro didn't do too much against Ajax. With Barça's shaky defense, the offense will once again be asked to carry the team. If this team is going to go deep in this tournament, the right wing needs to become a force in Champions League games.
Victor Valdes: MVP of FCB thus far this season?
Victor Valdes has arguably been FC Barcelona's Most Valuable Player of the competitive season thus far. Valdes once again bailed out a shaky Barça defense in this game. Valdes made a tremendous stop in the 31st minute as a Bojan cross found the head of Ricardo van Rhijn, but Victor was there for the save. Valdes was there to stop the potential equalizer. Another chance for Ajax was stopped by VV in the 37th minute as Lerin Duarte's shot rolled into Valdes' arms. But VV's biggest save was in the 78th minute as Ajax was awarded a penalty. Victor saved Kolbeinn Sigthorsson's shot, and then VV made another save on a rebound shot.
As I mentioned while I was live-tweeting during the game, Sandro Rosell needs to get on his knees and beg Valdes to stay at FC Barcelona. His footwork, his instinct, and his heart are all irreplaceable. But as much as I personally would like to see Victor Valdes stay, I feel his decision to leave at the end of the season is final.
What Did We Learn?: The group stage will help get the Barça rotation finalized for the knockout stage.
I don't think anyone thought Ajax were going to give Barcelona a tough time in this game, especially since it was at the Camp Nou. And with all due respect to Ajax, Celtic FC, and AC Milan, neither of these teams will give Barcelona major problems in the group stage. Tata Martino will have a chance to utilize the rotation that he promised he'd emphasize in the next CL games. Going to Celtic Park in a few weeks will be difficult, but a solid rotation will be needed, same with going to Italy to face AC Milan later on.
My hope is that players like Cristian Tello, Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto, Alex Song, and Marc Bartra (who finally got playing time against Ajax) will get more playing time in CL games. It can't just be during garbage time or when Barcelona has already wrapped up the group. Cesc Fabregas, Xavi, Neymar, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, and even Messi need rest for Liga games as well-let's not forget Copa del Rey games as well. If Tata wants to help players like Bartra, Montoya, Roberto, and/or Tello grow as footballers, he needs to slowly but surely put these kids in meaningful games.
What's Next?: Saturday against Rayo Vallecano
Barcelona will travel to Madrid to take on Rayo Vallecano on Saturday. While Rayo is one of the poorer team of La Liga this season, let's not overlook this club completely.
That being said, I don't expect FC Barcelona to struggle on Saturday.
Look for Cristian Tello to potentially get the start at LW as Neymar could use the rest as well. Xavi may get the start as he didn't start (on as a substitute) against Ajax. I hope Tata Martino gives Martin Montoya some playing time also. With the kid's contact negotiations on hold, giving Montoya more playing time will help show Martin that he does have a future with this team. The same can be said for Marc Bartra.
Xoel's Final Word
Barcelona's UEFA Champions League run began with a bang on Wednesday as Lionel Messi's hat trick got El Blaugrana off to a 4-0 win against Ajax at the Camp Nou.
The attention now goes back to La Liga as a trip to Madrid to face Rayo Vallecano is upon us. It may not be the toughest of games ahead, but all games are important and working to improve and growing as a team is on the agenda for every game.
Great win, boys! Let's keep the momentum going.
Xoel, The Voice of FC Barcelona