Lionel Messi scored his 11th and 12th goals of this season's UEFA Champions League to help favourites Barcelona beat Liverpool 3-0 in the first leg of the semi-final at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.
Messi scored twice in the second half, including a stunning free-kick that marked his 600th goal for the club.
He found the net on a night when ex-Reds striker Luis Suarez finally opened his account in this season's competition. Their goals helped the Blaugrana build a commanding aggregate lead ahead of the return fixture at Anfield on Tuesday, May 7, a lead which has cemented Barca's status as favourites with the oddsmakers.
Ajax will also take a lead into the second leg of the semi-final stage after beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 in north London on Tuesday night. Donny van de Beek's third goal in the tournament has helped make Ajax second favourites.
Semi-Final 1st Leg Results
- Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 Ajax
- Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool
Champions League Top Scorers
1. Lionel Messi, Barcelona: 12
2. Robert Lewandowski, Bayern Munich: 8
3. Dusan Tadic, Ajax: 6
Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus: 6
Moussa Marega, Porto: 6
Sergio Aguero, Manchester City: 6
7. Edin Dzeko, AS Roma: 5
Raheem Sterling, Manchester City: 5
Andrej Kramaric, Hoffenheim: 5
Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain: 5
Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur: 5
Paulo Dybala, Juventus: 5
Statistics via the competition's official website
Messi's brilliance earned him plenty of admirers on a record-breaking night. The prolific No. 10's brilliance was needed to extend the slender lead Luis Suarez had given Barca against his old club.
Suarez slid in after a perfectly timed run to meet left-back Jordi Alba's threaded pass in the 26th minute. Surprisingly, the Uruguay international has struggled to find the net in Europe this season, but he still helped Barca seal another landmark:
The second half was Messi's turn to take the game over. He reacted quickest after Suarez came close to doubling his tally on 75 minutes. Seven minutes later, Messi struck the free-kick that brought up his 600th.
When taking free-kicks, Messi is setting standards other set-piece maestros can only aspire to.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Messi's achievement is how it took him less time to net 600 than his closest rival:
Sky Sports Statto @SkySportsStatto
Lionel Messi has now scored 600 goals for Barcelona Liverpool are the 76th team he has scored past for Barca Scored his 1st senior goal 14 years ago today in 2-0 La Liga win v Albacete, May 1st 2005 Has reached 600 senior club goals in 118 games fewer than Cristiano Ronaldo: https://t.co/870GTkKiw2
With Messi close to ending the debate about who is the best player on the planet, it's little wonder Barcelona are clear favourites. Add in the brilliance of Suarez, along with a rock-solid defence tough to break down on the watch of manager Ernesto Valverde, and there is little reason to believe Barca won't win the trophy for a sixth time.
Ajax might be the only team left not afraid of the prospect of facing Messi and Co. After all, the Eredivisie leaders have eliminated holders Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo-led Juventus this season.
Tottenham look like joining the list of the vanquished after Van de Beek's 15th-minute finish gave Ajax control of the tie. The precocious midfielder has made a habit of scoring this season, netting 15 times in all competitions.
Along with Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and David Neres, de Beek forms a contingent of match-winners who could take Ajax all the way to the trophy for the first time since 1995.