Lionel Messi scores hat trick as Barcelona routs Ajax 4-0
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) -- Lionel Messi marked his 80th Champions League match with a hat trick on Wednesday as Barcelona began its campaign in Group H with a 4-0 rout of Ajax.
The Argentina forward opened the scoring at Camp Nou Stadium with a free kick in the 22nd minute, doubled the hosts' advantage in the 55th on the break and, after Gerard Pique's 69th-minute goal, added another 15 minutes from time. The goals took his cumulative tally in the competition to 62 - nine short of Raul Gonzalez's all-time record of 71.
Despite some lethargic moments late in the first half, Barcelona eased to the win thanks to Messi's goals and the team's near complete control of possession.
And when Ajax did manage to create a scoring opportunity, Valdes was there to keep a clean sheet.
"Barcelona is full of individual talents,'' Barcelona coach Gerardo Martino said. "Today we can talk about Messi and Valdes, another day Xavi or Neymar. It is normal that one of them rises to the occasion.''
AC Milan beat Celtic 2-0 in the night's other Group H game.
True to both teams' well-established playing styles, Barcelona and Ajax kept the ball on the turf. While Ajax was limited to former Barcelona forward Bojan Krkic's sprints down the left side, Barcelona soon focused on Neymar cutting in from the left flank.
But it fell to Messi to get the hosts going after he had drawn a foul by dribbling across the edge of the area following a neat passing combination with Dani Alves.
From that prime spot, Messi sent a left-foot shot off the left post, with the ball beating outstretched goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer before ricocheting into the far side of the net.
Ricardo van Rhijn almost answered for Ajax in the 31st when Bojan picked him out with a cross, only for Valdes to smother his header.
The home crowd turned jittery near the end of the first half, and Barcelona apparently took note by showing the defensive pressure Martino had said was his top priority to restore after the break.
The increased intensity paid off when Barcelona recovered the ball and Sergio Busquets spotted Messi running unmarked down the right side. Messi took his pass, cut back to bring Stefano Denswil to the ground and used his left foot to score.
Neymar, on his European debut, set up Gerard Pique to add Barcelona's third goal with a long cross.
Ajax lost possession near its area and Xavi Hernandez laid the ball off for Messi to take his time before driving it between a pair of defenders and into the corner of the net for his third goal.
Valdes had his moment of glory one minute later in the 76th when he blocked Kolbeinn Sigthorsson's penalty kick after Javier Mascherano had fouled Thulani Serero in the box.
Ajax's loss extended its losing streak to Spanish opponents to nine consecutive games. Ajax's last victory in Spain dates back even farther to the 1996-97 season when Ajax's current coach Frank de Boer, who later went on to play for Barcelona, helped the Dutch team win at Atletico Madrid.
The two four-time champions had never met before in Europe's top-tier competition. Even so, fewer teams from different countries have stronger ties.
Dutch great Johan Cruyff led Ajax to three straight European titles from 1971-73 as a player before moving to Barcelona, where he would later return as a coach to guide it to its first European title in 1992.
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