Barcelona restored their nine-point lead at the top of the La Liga table ahead of next week’s potentially title-deciding El Clásico thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao at the Cathedral of San Mamés. Raphinha scored the winning goal for the second game in a row, and Barça needed some incredible defending and help from VAR to survive Athletic and get all three points.
Here are the winners and losers from Sunday’s action.
Note: Applying the labels “winners” and “losers” is not intended to be a judgment on the talent or character of any of these players. It’s just a simple way to grade their performance in a single game. No disrespect is intended.
Marc-André ter Stegen: Big German Makes Big Saves. Again. Ter Stegen’s revenge season continues, and there is zero doubt about who the best player on the pitch was in this one. It’s not exactly a good thing for the winning team’s goalkeeper to be Man of the Match, but Barça won’t complain about the three points and certainly won’t complain about having Ter Stegen as the last line of protection. His save on Iker Muniain’s shot was out of this world, and he never made a poor decision and claimed several crosses before they could become dangerous. What a performance.
Jules Kounde: It had been a while since we’ve seen the best of the Frenchman, but it was on full display tonight. Kounde had the nigthmare matchup against Iñaki Williams and for the most part was very successful in dealing with the Athletic stiker’s incredible speed. His passing was on point during the opening 20 minutes of the second half when Barça did a good job of controlling the pace and keeping possession, and while it doesn’t hurt to play alongside Andreas Christensen and in front of Ter Stegen, Kounde more than held his own.
Alejandro Balde: Balde’s amazing season has already earned him such an excellent reputation that Ernesto Valverde decided to switch his best winger, Nico Williams, to the left wing to try and attack Sergi Roberto. Valverde switched Williams back to his favorite spot in the second half, but Balde was more than up for the challenge. Balde has learned from Ronald Araujo that the best way to deal with fast, skilled wingers is to be physical and not give them an inch, but he used his pace to great results whenever he found himself in a foot race. He was also a constant outlet offensively, and his stamina to run up and down the pitch really hard for 90 minutes is starting to become the stuff of legends.
VAR: Since the video assistance was crucial in the two major moments that decided the game in Barça’s favor, it must be acknowledged for the excellent job it did. Raphinha’s goal was initially disallowed but confirmed after review, and Iker Muniain absolutely did use his elbow to win the ball from Frenkie De Jong and start the counter attack that led to Williams’ goal. Rival fans will scream and shout, but there is absolutely no controversy tonight. Well done to the referees.
Robert Lewandowski: 2023 has been a difficult year for Lewy with suspensions and injury disrupting his rhythm, but tonight was an especially tough night for the Pole. He was brought in the summer to score the two exact chances he got in this one: one-on-one with the goalkeeper, and wide open header from less than 10 yards. He missed both, badly, and had a few poor first touches that killed some promising counter attacks throughout the night. Lewy does take a lot of punishment from defenders and has shown a willingness to play as a false nine and help the team’s possession game at times, but his ultimate job is to be the most clinical finisher on Earth, especially with very clear chances. He was far from that, and needs to rediscover his 2022 form fast.