By Braden Phillips
BARCELONA (Reuters) - Lionel Messi gave yet another sparkling Champions League recital when he netted a hat-trick as Barcelona began their European campaign with a crushing 4-0 home win over Ajax Amsterdam in Group H on Wednesday.
The Argentine World Player of the Year, who has made brilliance seem routine with an incredible haul of goals in recent seasons, conjured another memorable night at the Nou Camp for his adoring fans by becoming the first player to score four trebles in Europe's elite club competition.
At the age of just 26, his overall goals tally is now 62 in 80 appearances, nine short of former Real Madrid forward and record marksman Raul.
Messi opened the scoring in the 22nd minute with a superb curling free kick, struck with a trademark dash in from the right and clinical finish 10 minutes into the second half and buried a low shot into the corner from the edge of the area 15 minutes from time.
His breathtaking performance brought back memories of his five-goal haul against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2010-11 Champions League, when he became the only man to score five in one match, and the four goals he put past Arsenal in 2010.
"It was important to start with a win, especially playing at home," Messi said in an interview with Spanish television broadcaster Canal Plus.
"We know how difficult these Champions League groups always are," he added.
"We found it tough to pressure them initially because they were moving the ball well out from the back. But I think in general it was a great performance."
Defender Gerard Pique had netted Barca's third with a header from Neymar's whipped centre in the 69th minute and goalkeeper Victor Valdes continued his fine run of form by saving Kolbeinn Sigthorsson's 77th-minute penalty, one of a host of good saves.
It was a winning Champions League start for Barca's new coach Gerardo Martino but Messi apart his side generally struggled to reproduce the scintillating play that has brought them two European crowns in the past five seasons.
However, with their talisman on fire and Barca hosting an Ajax team lacking in real quality the outcome of the match was never in doubt.
"Obviously, we were much better in the second half when we controlled play more effectively and were more precise with our short passing," Martino told Canal Plus.
"We made quite a few mistakes in the first half and perhaps relied too much on the long ball," added the Argentine, who was drafted in from Newell's Old Boys to take over from the ailing Tito Vilanova before the start of the season.
"But we are working on it, trying to find variations but always with the idea that our central footballing philosophy is based on possession of the ball.
"We are still making the errors that often happen at the start of the season but as we accumulate victories I think things will improve.
"Starting the group stage with a win at home will make us a lot stronger."
Surprisingly, Wednesday's match was the first official meeting between the two continental heavyweights, who have each won four European titles.
A Johan Cruyff-inspired Ajax claimed three successive European Cup triumphs between 1971 and 1973 and another in 1995 in a side including current coach Frank de Boer, who later had a four-year stint at Barca.
Barca won their first European crown under coach Cruyff in 1992 and three more in 2006, 2009 and 2011.
"I was satisfied with the first half, we almost created as many chances as they did," De Boer said on the UEFA website (www.uefa.com).
"It is a shame that very quickly in second half we conceded the second goal," he added.
"We also gave away two goals at the end - that is what really annoys me."
Italian side AC Milan beat Celtic of Scotland 2-0 in the other match in the group.