By Andreas Vou
A dominant performance from FC Barcelona saw them breeze past APOEL at the GSP Stadium on Tuesday night with a 0-4 victory.
There was a cup final atmosphere in Nicosia as they welcomed one of the giants of European football despite the fact that qualification to the next round of the Champions League was a mathematical impossibility.
The Catalans, on the other hand, had all to play for and needed a win to maintain pressure on group leaders Paris Saint-Germain whom they trailed by one point, hence Luis Enrique fielded an almost full-strength lineup.
Lionel Messi fired an early warning sign after just three minutes when he broke clear of the APOEL defenders – his powerful shot, however, was straight at goalkeeper Urko Pardo.
APOEL defended with their typical style of two banks of four camped on the edge of their own penalty box which frustrated Barça in the early exchanges but it would not last long. Barça’s intense pressing game meant that APOEL sparsely got out of their own half in the first period.
Just five minutes after Jordi Alba saw his volley sail over the bar, the left-back made a telling contribution for the first goal of the night. Alba played a strong pass to the feet of Luis Suarez, who then pulled off a magical turn, flicking the ball through the legs of Guilherme before placing the ball neatly into the corner of the net for his first goal for the club.
Barcelona had failed to win in their previous two visits to Cyprus (1-1 against Apollon in 1982 and 0-0 versus AEK in 1996) but it would not be third time lucky for APOEL.
Just a few days after breaking the record for the most goals in the history of Spain’s top division, Messi cleverly deflected Rafinha’s goalward shot into the corner to surpass the legendary Raul’s 71 goal haul in the Champions League.
On 58 minutes, the Argentine wizard would extend his record to 73 – a lovely threaded through ball by Dani Alves was latched on to by Messi who needed one touch to control and another to poke the ball beyond his former Barcelona B team mate Urko Pardo.
APOEL’s best and perhaps only real chance of the night came just shy of the hour-mark – a powerful strike by Tomas De Vincenti, on as a second-half substitute, was palmed away by Barça keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Even though Barcelona were reduced to ten men on 70 minutes, after Rafinha’s clumsy challenge on De Vincenti, the visitors continued their dominance. And Guilherme’s aggressive challenge on Pedo Rodriguez with six minutes to go would also reduce APOEL to ten players, as he received his marching orders for his second yellow of the night.
Messi, who also scored a hat-trick against Sevilla on Saturday at the Camp Nou, would notch in his third of the night in Nicosia too. Pedro unselfishly squared the ball back to Barca’s no.10 who had the easy task of tapping home to wrap up a comfortable 0-4 win.
Despite the result, which leaves APOEL rooted to the bottom of Group F with just one point, the Cypriots’ objective remains exactly as it was before kick-off. Ajax’s 3-1 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain means APOEL are still one point behind the Dutch champions. This means that a win, and only a win, for APOEL in their final group game in Amsterdam on December 10 will see them into the knockout phase of the Europa League.
By Andreas Vou