Champions League: Messi brilliant for Barcelona; Chelsea and Dortmund fall flat
There were fewer goals in the second day of Matchday One fixtures but no shortage of drama as last year¹s runners-up Borussia Dortmund had a wake-up call while Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Arsenal all won. Here are our takeaways from yet another dramatic night of action:
Anything Ronaldo can do, Messi can do (better): It was this week 13 years ago that a 13-year-old boy called Lionel Messi landed at Barcelona’s El Prat and, thanks to some smart napkin-signing from youth coach Carles Rexach, joined Barcelona. Thirteen years and 320 goals later, Messi continued the dominant narrative of recent Champions League seasons by seeing Cristiano Ronaldo score for Real Madrid and then doing precisely the same in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Ajax.
If there was an air of change around Camp Nou before the first competitive meeting between these two sides with their shared history, it was a contrast to the last European game here, when Bayern smashed a Messi-less Barca 3-0 in the Champions League semifinal last May. For all the talk of change, though, with new coach Tata Martino on the bench and Neymar making his competition bow on the left wing, it started off as a similar story for Barcelona: dominating possession, looking to score the perfect goal, hitting one pass too many when a shot was possible.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer promised to stay true to the “Ajax way” but he did field two left-backs to counter the threat of Dani Alves down the right; instead, Barcelona looked more dangerous on the left, where Andres Iniesta and in particular Neymar, gave Ricardo van Rhijn a headache. Neymar no longer sports the Mohawk that marked him out in Brazil, and given his decisions to pass to willing teammates, is proving willing to play the team game that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, infamously, refused to embrace. (As Ibrahimovic wrote in his autobiography, I Am Zlatan: “The Barca players were like schoolboys, following the coach blindly, whereas I was used to asking “Why?” For example, Barca players were banned from driving their sports cars to training. I thought this was ridiculous it was no-one’s business what car I drive so I drove my Ferrari Enzo to work and it caused a scene.”)
While Brazil waited for the Neymar moment to come – he had two first-half shots comfortably held by Kenneth Vermeer – it was Messi who made the breakthrough, first winning a foul outside the box and then curling a left-footed effort around a shambolic wall and in off the post. It was a moment of pure genius, and led Barcelona fanatics to point out that the 20 yards of Messi’s shot was more than the combined yardage of Ronaldo’s three goals against Galatasaray 24 hours earlier.
There’s no doubt that what Ronaldo does has a ripple effect in Barcelona. Before the game, Barcelona president Sandro Rosell denied claims Messi had asked for a pay rise so he could earn more than Ronaldo. “Messi hasn’t said anything to us. He’s happy here and he’s at the best club in the world.” Early in the second half, Messi did it again, cutting inside his man from an Alexis cross and doubling the lead. It took him onto 61 goals in Champions League, just 10 short of Raul’s all-time record that will surely be broken this season. After Neymar crossed for Pique to head home a third, Messi completed his hat-trick, another wonderful move ending with a smart left-footed finish from the edge of the area. Martino has said he wants to give Barcelona more options but for now, the old ones seem to be working just fine. There was time for Victor Valdes to save a late penalty too.
Would Ronaldo be as prolific if Messi was not breaking records for Barcelona? Would Messi’s motivation be as high if Ronaldo was not playing in the same league as him? We will never know for sure, but I doubt it. Once again, this was a case of anything Ronaldo can do, Messi can do better. We should make the most of this: we are lucky that two of the greatest talents to have ever played the game are in the same generation.
Bad night for the Special Ones, Klopp and Mourinho: Jurgen Klopp was the media darling of last year’s European season, his charm and wit seducing us all as Borussia Dortmund was a surprise, yet deserved, finalist. He always said he was a bad loser, and his nice-guy façade lasted 30 minutes of this campaign; that was when Gonzalo Higuain scored for Napoli at a time when Neven Subotic was waiting to come on the pitch after receiving treatment. Klopp lost his rag, stamping and snarling at the fourth official, for which he was sent off. It was to get worse for him: Mats Hummels went off injured and Roman Weidenfeller was sent off for handball, leaving Dortmund with few threats for the second period.
It would be unfair not to give due credit to Napoli, top in Serie A and impressive in this, its biggest test of the season so far. The trio of Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon were a constant menace, and Rafa Benitez has a team that, despite its seeding in pot four, could get out of the Group of Death.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Dortmund; losing 2-1 away on Matchday One to a strong side will not eliminate it, but Arsenal’s impressive away win at Marseille was a reminder that it has a superb group-stage record too. Dortmund’s next match, against Marseille, could be an interesting one: with Weidenfeller (and Klopp) suspended, BVB could be without Ilkay Gundogan, Sebastien Kehl and Lukasz Piszczek (all injured).
The “Portuguese Klopp”, as the German press ironically called Jose Mourinho last season, also suffered a Matchday One nightmare as his Chelsea side lost 2-1 to Basel. Oscar put the host ahead just before half-time but second-half goals from Mo Salah and Marco Streller left Mourinho’s “young chicks” (whose average age from the starting eleven was about 27) losing its first ever group stage opener. Coming on the back Chelsea’s defeat at Everton last weekend, expect some tough questions directed at Mourinho in the next few days and plenty of talk about “long-term projects” from the coach.
His name is Prince: A former teammate at Portsmouth remembers the summer that Kevin-Prince Boateng decided to change his name to Prince. He would no longer answer to his previous name. “Kevin?” he asked. Silence. “Kevin?” Nothing. “Prince?” And only then, he turned around. “Prince” saved some of his best performances at AC Milan for the Champions League and he was at it again for his new club Schalke, scoring the second in its 3-0 win over Steaua Bucharest. Schalke’s season was under threat of imploding when it lost two of its first three league games and was struggling in the Champions League playoff against PAOK. Boateng’s late-August signing has changed all that; he inspired a win over Bayer Leverkusen on debut, and scored the winner against Mainz last week. Schalke could have a decent season after all. Just don’t call him Kevin.