Lionel Messi became the joint top scorer in UEFA Champions League history with both goals in Barcelona’s 2-0 win at Ajax which also secured their place in the round-of-16 on Wednesday.
Messi moved level with Real Madrid legend Raul on 71 goals in the competition as he headed home the opener nine minutes before halftime, before prodding in from Pedro Rodriguez’s cross 15 minutes from time to make the game safe just moments after the hosts had been reduced to 10 men.
However, it was another frustrating evening for Luis Suarez on his return to the side where he made his name in Europe as he passed up a huge chance to score his first Barca goal early in the second half.
“I am happy for Leo because of the work he does for the team. He is the No. 1, the best,” Barca midfielder Xavi Hernandez said.
Meanwhile, Barcelona boss Luis Enrique was relieved to return to winning ways after two consecutive defeats.
“I am satisfied, although there were phases of the game we could have been better, Enrique said. “The attitude of the team was marvelous against opponents that had everything to play for.”
However, Ajax coach Frank de Boer believed his side deserved more than a defeat which leaves them fighting with APOEL for Europa League spot.
“I think we deserved to at least score a goal,” the former Barcelona defender said. “Even in the second half, although Barca started better, we had our chances and hit the post. After the red card the game was finished.”
Messi took advantage of a rare off night in front of goal by Cristiano Ronaldo against Liverpool on Tuesday to leapfrog the Portuguese, who now lies one behind the Argentine on 70 Champions League goals.
However, Barca had it far from all their own way in the Dutch capital as after Neymar had an early goal rightly ruled out for the visitors, it was Ajax who enjoyed the better of the opening 45 minutes.
Lucas Andersen fired just wide from the edge of the penalty area, before Marc-Andre ter Stegen made a fine low save to deny Davy Klaassen rounding of a sumptuous move with a volleyed finish.
It took Barca more than half an hour to wake from their slumber, but their star-studded front three began to create problems when Suarez’s driven effort was deflected behind for a corner.
Messi then teed up Jordi Alba with a lovely through-ball, but Ajax goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen scurried from his line to block the Spain international fullback’s effort.
The opening goal arrived nine minutes before halftime and it was harsh on Cillessen, who originally made a great save high to his right to keep out a Messi free-kick.
However, Barca kept the ball alive and from Marc Bartra’s cross Messi somehow outjumped his marker to nod the ball home, despite Ricardo van Rhijn’s desperate attempts to clear off the line.
Barca had more control of the game after the break and should have wrapped up the three points when Messi released Suarez clean through on goal, but Cillessen stood up to block his unconvincing finish and Messi curled the rebound wide.
Luis Enrique’s men were given a scare 23 minutes from time when substitute Arkadiusz Milik’s header came back off the post, but any hopes of a revival from the hosts disappeared when central defender Joel Veltman received a second yellow card for chopping down Messi.
Just four minutes later, the Argentine made the game safe when he exchanged passes with Pedro, before sliding in to register his 11th goal of the season.
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