Barcelona cruise past Ajax


Lionel Messi drew level with fierce rival Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to become the Champions League's all-time top goalscorer as Barcelona warmed up for El Clasico with a 3-1 victory over Ajax. Both Messi and Real Madrid's Ronaldo have now scored 69 goals in the competition after the Argentinian followed up Neymar's first-half opener at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night. He was later withdrawn with a view to keeping him fresh for Saturday's showdown at the Santiago Bernabeu and remains, along with Ronaldo, two goals shy of former Real striker Raul's record tally. Ajax steadily gained a foothold as the second half progressed but, shortly after Anwar El Ghazi halved the deficit, Sandro Ramirez rubber-stamped the result with a stoppage-time strike. The win sees Barca reach six points and retain second place in Group F behind Paris St Germain, who beat APOEL in Cyprus. Marc-Andre ter Stegen enjoyed a relatively quiet night in the Barca goal as his team-mates ran their Dutch opponents ragged for most of the match. The first goal arrived after only eight minutes. Scintillating one-touch football sent Barca's forward line accelerating into the Ajax box and, when Neymar received Messi's pass out to the left, he happily slammed the ball beyond Jasper Cillessen. The Catalans set up camp in the Dutch half, with Messi soon testing his aim with a left-footed scoop shot over the bar from the edge of the box. His aim was true in the 24th minute as he reached yet another major landmark in his career. When a casual clearance from the Ajax backline was bounced into Andres Iniesta's path, the diminutive midfielder spotted Messi's run immediately and provided him with a perfect assist. The Argentinian duly tucked the ball underneath Cillessen to draw level with Ronaldo and within only two goals of catching Raul. Barca should have scored a third when Messi released Pedro on the left shortly before the half-hour, but the winger could only slam the ball against the far post with Cillessen beaten once again. Iniesta might have added goal number three before the break, and in sumptuous fashion. After dancing past four defenders and into a one-on-one with Cillessen, he tried to chip the Ajax goalkeeper only to watch the ball glance off his fingers and bobble just wide. The onslaught continued when play resumed, but Messi was denied his second by the offside flag after racing forward to tuck away Pedro's parried drive. Messi then danced through defence in his trademark style, only to ruffle the side-netting, and Ajax soon enjoyed their first sight on goal as Ricardo Van Rhijn blasted past a post. Perhaps with the weekend's El Clasico encounter in mind, coach Luis Enrique withdrew Messi for Munir – the striker's quest to surpass Ronaldo's achievements on hold for another fortnight at least. While Barca remained firmly in control of proceedings they were keen to score again and cement their victory and Ivan Rakitic gave Cillessen a real scare with a thunderous attempt from distance. The scare they had hoped to avoid arrived, however, as El Ghazi bundled the ball home two minutes from time when Barca failed to clear their lines. Four minutes of stoppage time beckoned and, although the hosts looked comfortable in riding out the final exchanges, Sandro's low attempt at the end of a counter-attack did enough to fool Cillessen.