Messi homes in on Raúl’s record

Champions League hat-trick brings Argentinean to within single figures of history

Lionel Messi gives the thumbs up during the Champions League match against Ajax.
Lionel Messi gives the thumbs up during the Champions League match against Ajax.LLUIS GENE (AFP)

Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both bagged hat-tricks as the Champions League 2013-14 kicked off, the former bearing down with grim inevitability on yet another record: that of Raúl, the competition’s all-time leading scorer. The Argentinean’s treble in a 4-0 victory over Ajax — the first competitive meeting of the twin promulgators of total football — took his tally in Europe’s elite club competition to 62, nine shy of Raúl’s historic haul, which in all likelihood will be overhauled before next May.

Ronaldo rose to fourth in the list of top scorers with three in a 6-1 drubbing of Galatasaray in Istanbul, leaving Thierry Henry in his wake. Only Ruud van Nistelrooy stands between the Portuguese and Messi, but four more will see Ronaldo better the Dutchman’s mark. Of the top 10 on the list, the prolific pair are the only active players.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona are eager to put last year’s continental calamity firmly behind them — the latter especially after a 7-0 aggregate thrashing by Bayern Munich, now coached by former mentor Pep Guardiola. Real’s obsession is the décima, a 10th European triumph, the quest for which persuaded Florentino Pérez to break the bank for Gareth Bale. But the Welshman, still not fully match fit, was confined to the bench while Isco, Ángel di María and Luka Modric buzzed around Galatasaray’s erratic back four.

The footnote to that match was the return of Iker Casillas to the Real goal after 238 days without a competitive start for his club, the Spain captain being benched since Álvaro Arbeloa’s boot met his hand in a league match against Valencia.

In Istanbul Casillas enjoyed no greater luck, the clumsy teammate this time being Sergio Ramos. The keeper had to be substituted by the in-form Diego López on 13 minutes with ribs as bruised as his 2013 ego.

Real Sociedad’s return to the Champions League was an equally discomfiting experience; not only did the Basque side, which had excelled and provided a couple of contenders for goal of the competition in the playoff round against Olympique Lyon, lose 2-0 at home to Shakhtar Donetsk, but it also lost on-loan midfielder Esteban Granero for the season to a serious knee injury. La Real is up against it already in Group A and travels to Manchester United’s Old Trafford home for its next engagement.

Atlético Madrid is also making a Champions League bow after an absence of three seasons during which it dominated the competition’s ugly sister, the Europa League. Diego Simeone’s team continued its winning start to the campaign at the Calderón, employing its trademark pugnacious style to see off Zenit 3-1 and assume leadership of Group G.

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