Barcelona winger Raphinha secured a 1-0 win in LaLiga for the second straight week this time at Athletic Bilbao as his side tightened their grip on top spot ahead of a potentially season-defining week in which they host second-placed Real Madrid.
Repeating the combination of provider and scorer from last week’s 1-0 win at Valencia, Raphinha netted a thunderous strike right on halftime after a brilliant pass by midfielder Sergio Busquets who spotted the Brazilian ghosting behind the defence.
But Raphinha’s goal was one of only two Barca shots on target in the match as they survived a frantic affair in which the hosts were the better side for large parts of the contest.
Athletic saw two shots hit the bar and an Inaki Williams effort in the last few minutes of the game ruled out for a controversial handball in the build-up.
Barcelona have 65 points, nine clear of second-placed Real who face a must-win game at Camp Nou next Sunday to keep their slim chances of retaining the title alive. Athletic are ninth on 33 points.
“It’s the same thing once again. We have to play and attack better,” coach Barca Xavi Hernandez told DAZN. “We went 1-0 in a difficult stadium and end up suffering. It is a golden victory, but we keep thinking about improving offensively.”
Roared by some 40,000 fans who fired up a sold-out San Mames, Athletic dominated proceedings early with the Williams brothers, Nico and Inaki, a constant threat to Barca’s defence.
The clever Alex Berenguer almost scored in the 24th minute after Barca defender Jules Kounde missed a pass back to Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the Athletic forward getting in front of the goalkeeper but putting his shot just wide.
Man-of-the-match Ter Stegen made several crucial saves to preserve a clean sheet, the first in the 30th minute, when he palmed Inaki Williams’ close-range strike round the post.
He was lucky from the following corner when a Raul Garcia header cannoned off the crossbar.
But just when Athletic were in full control and knocking on the door, Raphinha made the most of a chance with an unstoppable strike to give Barca a breather going into the break.
Athletic kept fighting in the second half and in the 71st minute Berenguer hit the post as he tried to slot the ball home from inside the box on a counter-attack.
Five minutes later it was Ter Stegen who denied Athletic the equaliser with an incredible fingertip save from Iker Muniain’s shot from the edge of the box.
In the 88th minute Inaki Williams fired past Ter Stegen, but his effort was ruled out for a handball by Muniain early in the build-up after VAR intervened and the referee checked the replay screen, leaving Athletic’s players and fans outraged.
“I see the images and I don’t know. It’s a question of what is football and what is not,” Athletic manager Federico Valverde said after the match. “I think VAR is there to correct blatant mistakes. That’s why it came in. Big errors. Balls that have gone in or not.
“To call over the referee to see if it touches [a hand] or not. I don’t know if that belongs in the world of football. Another day it will happen to another team.”
The hosts had another chance in added time but Ter Stegen’s reflex save denied Yuri Berchiche and Marcos Alonso headed off the line to stop Oier Zarraga’s shot from the rebound.