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Five talking points from Athletic 0-1 Barcelona

Xavi’s side restore their nine-point lead with a battling win at San Mames


Raphinha is Barca’s match-winner again

Barcelona’s winner against Athletic come courtesy of Raphinha who really has been doing the business in 2023 for Xavi’s side.

Once again he was teed up by Sergio Busquets, just like against Valencia last time out, but this time the finish came courtesy of his right foot with the ball flashing across goal before nestling into the far corner.

That’s now nine goals and nine assists for the Brazilian at Barca, not quite at his target of double figures, but there’s still a large chunk of the season left to go.

Raphinha hasn’t had the easiest time at Barcelona since joining from Leeds United but is going through a really good spell at a crucial time for Xavi’s side.

Barca have struggled in front of goal with Pedri and Ousmane Dembele missing (and Robert Lewandowski looking rusty) but Raphinha has stepped up and scored five goals in 10 games since Dembele was sidelined.

Gavi sums up battling Barca

As expected, Barca had to battle for victory at San Mames and no player summed up the improved mentality and grit in the team more than 18-year-old Gavi.

The teenager’s desire and bravery to tackle Mikel Balenziaga using his head really was something you don’t see every day. It was a fearless move but also one that risks a nasty injury.

Yet Gavi wasn’t the only one willing to use his body for the cause. There was no Ronald Araujo in defence but Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen were happy to throw themselves into blocks to preserve yet another another clean sheet.

Gavi’s reaction when Inaki Williams thought he’d equalized late on also spoke volumes. The midfielder was spotted pounding the turf in sheer frustration at seeing his team drop points before the decision was overturned.

VAR to the rescue

Barcelona needed VAR to come to the rescue and, during a season when La Liga refereeing has been very much in the spotlight for all sorts of reasons, it was a pleasant surprise to see the technology actually do its job properly for once.

VAR was actually called for to give Barcelona’s opener. Raphinha’s goal had initially been ruled out for offside but was subsequently given after it was revealed the decision was incorrect.

And the technology was needed again after Williams thought he had snatched a point for the hosts. There was nothing wrong with the striker’s run and finish but the handball by Iker Munian beforehand was clear to see.

Athletic complained long and hard afterwards about the call but the images gave match referee Gil Manzano little option but to chalk the goal off after he was called to review the incident on the pitchside monitor.

Balde shows his golden touch

Alejandro Balde put in another sensational showing against Athletic at left-back. The teenager wasn’t daunted by a hostile crowd at San Mames or the prospect of facing up against the Williams brothers.

Indeed the highlight of his performance was undoubtedly an absolutely ridiculous touch that left Nico on the turf.

There were some nice words from Xavi after the match too, as he singled out the youngster for some serious praise.

“Alejandro Balde’s potential is immense, to build a long career here at Barça. He’s the biggest surprise and revelation of this season. He’s at a very high level and he’s maturing even more.”

Balde’s now started 19 of Barcelona’s 25 games this season in La Liga and is very clearly Xavi’s first choice at left-back. The exciting thing is he’s only going to get better as he matures.

Nine points clear ahead of El Clasico

Barcelona’s win sends the team into Sunday’s Clasico still with a healthy nine-point lead over Los Blancos. Win again on Sunday and the gap will be 12 points with just 12 games left which sounds very good indeed.

Yet Xavi’s side will have to improve, as he acknowledged after the match, if they are to take all three points against Carlo Ancelotti’s side.

Barca allowed 15 shots against Athletic and they will struggle to keep another clean sheet if they are as generous against Madrid.

The attackers will also need to step up. Lewandowski wasted two good chances and has now only scored two goals in his last nine La Liga matches. A goal against Madrid would certainly help him out of a mini-slump.

Barcelona should have some reinforcements for the game too. Ronald Araujo will be back from suspension and should be fresh to resume his rivalry with Vinicius Jur, while there is hope Pedri will also be back after injury. He’s certainly been missed.

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