Barcelona have restored their nine-point lead at the top of the La Liga table thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday night at San Mamés. The Blaugrana faced a brutal challenge for nearly 100 minutes and needed help from VAR twice to come away with all three points, but they found a way to survive hell and will go into next week’s El Clásico with a chance to virtually seal the title.
The opening period was just as tough as predicted, with Athletic pressing high and playing with lots of intensity and physicality, looking to strike quick and use their speed up front to create chances.
Barça tried to control midfield and slow the pace down but missed easy passes in the center of the park, which made the game very transition heavy and filled with counter-attacking football from both sides.
The Blaugrana had the two best early chances, with Ferran Torres narrowly missing a volley and Robert Lewandowski wasting a golden one-on-one with the goalkeeper due to a poor touch. Athletic responded with two big ones of their own, with Iñaki Williams requiring a great reflex save from Marc-André ter Stegen and a Raúl García header against the crossbar.
The game was dead even between two hard-playing teams and looked destined for a goalless draw at the half, but one moment of magic gave Barça the edge: Sergio Busquets showed his amazing vision and played a perfect pass into the box to find Raphinha all alone and onside, and the Brazilian used his weaker right foot to fire home the opener, which was disallowed at first but then confirmed through VAR.
At halftime Barça had the narrow lead but the home team was very much in the game, and the second half promised to be a battle.
Barça are usually slow starters in the second half, but the Blaugrana came out as the better side in the first 20 minutes of the final period by doing a much better job of controlling play in midfield and avoiding Athletic’s counter-attacks with fewer misplaced passes and better pressing to recover the ball.
The Catalans also had a very good chance to score a second when a cross from Alejandro Balde found the head of Lewandowski in the box but the Pole couldn’t hit the target from short distance.
Despite their good start Barça couldn’t capitalize and Athletic started to look like more of a threat again. Álex Berenguer hit the post, and Iker Muniain was his usual dynamic and creative self off the bench as the visitors pushed for an equalizer entering the final 15 minutes.
And it was Muniain who was responsible for Bilbao’s biggest chance as he made a one-two with Berenguer and fired a gorgeous curler that looked destined for the corner before Ter Stegen made a spectacular save.
The final 10 minutes were a full-on Bilbao blitz as Athletic sent all bodies forward and tested the Blaugrana backline with plenty of crosses and shots from distance. Barça survived the initial pressure, but with three minutes to go they couldn’t stop Athletic’s best player: Iñaki Williams received a pass over the top, ran past the entire Barça defense and fired home the equalizer.
And then, VAR ruled in Barça’s favor again as the video review showed a clear handball by Muniain at the start of the move, and the referee called off the goal after looking at the screen.
There was still plenty of time remaining as the lengthy goal review led to seven minutes of added time, and Athletic threw caution to the wind looking for the equalizer. They came incredibly close when Yuri Berchiche found himself all alone inside the box and fired a rocket into the net, but Jules Kounde made an incredible goal-line clearance and kept Barça in front.
That turned out to be Bilbao’s last chance on the night, and the final whistle came to give Barça three gigantic points before next week’s Clásico. San Mamés was just as brutal as expected, and Barça can count themselves very lucky to win this one. What a night.
Athletic: Agirrezabala; De Marcos (Capa 84’), Vivian, Martínez, Balenziaga (Yuri 70’); García, Vesga (Zarraga 64’); Berenguer (Guruzeta 84’), García (Muniain 64’), Williams; Williams
Barcelona: Ter Stegen; Roberto (Alonso 84’), Kounde, Christensen, Balde; Gavi (Alarcón 90+4’), Busquets, De Jong; Raphinha (Fati 84’), Lewandowski, Ferran (Kessie 68’)
Goal: Raphinha (45+1’)