FOX Soccer Exclusive
Problems loom for Barca despite win
The Catalan side is rebuilding its game this season under new coach Gerardo Martino, but it was more old magic from Lionel Messi which stood out as the Argentine bagged yet another sublime hat trick to lift a performance which was otherwise lacking in real sparkle.
Martino’s tactical tweaks got extra focus pregame, especially with Ajax being the visitors. As soon as August's draw paired the sides together for a first-ever competitive meeting, this game was immediately dubbed “the Cruyff derby” -- given Dutchman Johann Cruyff's huge influence on both clubs through the years.
Cruyff won three consecutive European Cups as an Ajax player in the 1970s, then starred as a Barcelona player before coaching the Catalan club when it first lifted the famous trophy in 1992. Most significantly he brought a “Totaalvoetbal” style from Ajax which evolved into the tiki-taka associated recently with Barca's success under Josep Guardiola. And which Martino is now trying to take forward again.
Ajax manager Frank de Boer set out with a more defensive approach than Cruyff would approve of. And his young team looked overawed at first, badly missing recent Tottenham signing Christian Eriksen, especially with midfielder Siem de Jong starting but clearly not match ready, and latest teenage starlet Viktor Fischer only on the bench due to fitness issues.
Brightest was visiting winger Bojan Krkic -- who scored 26 goals in 104 Liga appearances for Barca as a youngster before losing his way. Bojan at least posed some danger with regular driving runs, but never looked like beating his former teammate Victor Valdes. Valdes did impress later though -- when saving Kolbeinn Sigthorsson's late penalty and denying Ajax even a consolation goal.
Barcelona failed to impress despite their 4-0 victory over Ajax at the Camp Nou Wednesday night (Image: David Ramos/Getty Images).
Homegrown Bojan was loaned out again this summer just as $75 million summer signing Neymar was arriving. The Brazilian, another sign of Rosell's attempts to move Barca on from “cruyffismo,” looked eager to impress on his first Champions League appearance. There was a buzz of anticipation whenever he started to run with the ball, and oohs when he used his deceptive change of pace to glide past his markers.
The Brazilian regularly got into dangerous positions, but none of his five attempts seriously troubled visiting keeper Kenneth Vermeer. He kept going though, and just before being substituted provided the excellent cross from which Gerard Pique headed Barca’s third goal.
But it was still Messi -- who fits into no school or mould but his own -- who was the game’s pivotal figure. The Argentine started things off with by arrowing a 20-yard free kick in off the post. His second was also a typical effort, stepping inside his marker and firing in clinically from Sergio Busquets’ fine assist. His third was the best of the lot -- with time appearing to stand still as he paused and fixed the entire defense before passing calmly to the net for his 62nd career Champions League goal.
Such individual brilliance from Messi was required as Martino’s new direct vertical style still appears very much a work in progress. With Barca’s usual midfield metronome Xavi Hernandez on the bench, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta had the playmaking duties but created little if anything. On its first European outing since last season’s 7-0 hammering by Bayern Munich, Barca does not yet seem to have gotten over that shock.
Wednesday's meeting at the Camp Nou should then have been a party -- perhaps with Cruyff being lauded by both clubs pregame. But the build-up was dominated by continuing bickering between the famously prickly Dutchman and Barca president Sandro Rosell.
Cruyff said pregame he hoped Ajax won, and declined an invitation from Barca to attend the pregame meal between directors of both clubs. Rosell publicly claimed “El Flaco” -- still close to both Guardiola and Rosell's predecessor as Barca president Joan Laporta -- was trying to divide “barcelonismo.” Cruyff called this suggestion absurd.
All the while, the two sides’ current coaches were trying to steer clear of trouble. Martino was re-explaining Pique's recent comments about Barca needing to add more predictability to their game, while de Boer was managing expectations given today's gulf in resources between clubs who until recently were similarly sized.
On Wednesday night, Barcelona came out predictably on top. But the issues between the club’s “philosopher” and its current president certainly don’t help take things forward. Martino is trying to introduce new ideas --less sideways passing at the back, more incisiveness up front -- and the players seem keen, but have yet to really grasp his plans.