Barcelona has 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.
Despite coming into the match on a four-game winless run in all competitions, the hosts made a lively start, but could well have fallen behind at 17 minutes when Frenkie de Jong beautifully slipped in the returning Robert Lewandowski.
However, the division’s top scorer this season possibly showed signs of rust, taking a heavy touch when he should have pulled the trigger as Julen Agirrezabala gathered.
Midway through the first period though, Athletic had an unexpectedly good opportunity of their own. Dani Vivian’s long pass over the top caused a mix-up between Jules Koundé and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but Alex Berenguer could only help the ball wide under pressure from the Germany goalkeeper, who was making his 350th club career appearance.
Inaki Williams pulled a great save out from Ter Stegen down to his left, before Raul Garcia crashed a header against the bar from Berenguer’s resulting corner.
But the visitors broke the deadlock on the stroke of halftime as Sergio Busquets worked in a gorgeous ball through to Raphinha, who took a touch before firing home from an angle, and although the effort was initially ruled out for offside, that decision was soon overturned by VAR.
Lewandowski wasn’t having his best evening and had another chance to open his account for the evening shortly after the break, but his header from Alejandro Balde’s pinpoint cross missed the target.
Former Barca boss Valverde brought on Iker Muniain to alter the complexion of the contest, but that change had little impact until the forward’s whipped shot forced Ter Stegen into a brilliant save on 79 minutes.
Athletic thought they had equalised when Williams was played in and finished with aplomb, but the goal was chalked off after hitting Muniain’s left arm in the build-up, before a frantic passage of play in the dying minutes somehow which included two goalline clearances from Jules Kounde and substitute Marcos Alonso saw Barcelona survive.
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