Raphinha provided a match-winner for the second week running as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao in another 1-0 win, this time at San Mames on Sunday, despite some late drama as Inaki Williams had an equaliser ruled out by VAR.
Williams thought he had earned a point for the home side in the 87th minute only for his effort to be disallowed following a pitch-side review for a handball by Iker Muniain in the build-up.
Bilbao's Yuri Berchiche and Gorka Guruzeta then had great chances to equalise in stoppage time, but Barca held on thanks to Raphinha's ninth goal in all competitions this season.
Coach Xavi Hernandez's side, therefore, maintain their nine-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of LaLiga going into next weekend's El Clasico at Camp Nou.
1. VAR decision earns Barcelona three vital points
There was already a fiery atmosphere at San Mames on Sunday after a week that saw Spanish prosecutors seek charges against Barcelona for trying buy favour from referees -- something the club vehemently denies. In the 30th minute, Athletic fans chucked fake bank notes on to the pitch with Barca's badge and the word "mafia" written on them and chanted, "To the second division."
That was nothing compared to the whistles that greeted the full-time whistle after the game's big VAR decision went against Athletic.
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Williams out-ran Barcelona onto a ball over the top and fired past Marc-Andre ter Stegen for what appeared to be a well-executed equaliser. Nothing appeared amiss at first, but referee Gil Manzano was soon advised to review the play again. Upon review, he cancelled the goal out for a handball by Munian at the other end of the pitch in the sequence where Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong lost the ball.
Even still, Athletic could still have got a point. Berchiche and Guruzeta saw shots blocked on the line in a frenzied ending to the game. Earlier, Alex Berenguer and Raul Garcia had both hit the woodwork for Athletic Bilbao and Ter Stegen made saves on Muniain and Williams.
Manager Ernesto Valverde's side will have to pick themselves up quickly. Athletic Club are still in the running for a European place despite a five-game winless run in all competitions and are in the semifinal of the Copa del Rey.
2. Barcelona's clean sheets driving title charge ahead of El Clasico
There was an element of fortune to Barca's latest clean sheet on Sunday, but their numbers over the course of the season are no fluke.
They have now had 19 shutouts in 25 league games, more than any other team from Europe's top five leagues this season. In total, they have conceded just eight goals in LaLiga, a record low for this stage of the season in Spain's top flight.
This may have been their closest shave yet, though. The 15 shots Athletic mustered was the second-most Barca have allowed this season (Atletico Madrid managed 20 in January) and required goalkeeper Ter Stegen to, once again, be at his best. Ter Stegen has already matched his league-best 19 clean sheets in a single season, with 13 more matches left to play this season. Defenders Andreas Christensen, Jules Kounde and Alejandro Balde also made important contributions at various moments.
The clean sheets have meant Barca have not always had to excel in attack, and one goal is often enough. They have now won 1-0 nine times in LaLiga this season, and it means they will have a nine-point cushion when Madrid visit next week. A win in the Clasico would take them within touching distance of a first league title since 2019.
3. Raphinha delivering in Dembele's absence
Raphinha has often drawn criticism in his first season at Barcelona, but he is now regularly winning them matches.
His goal against Athletic came fresh from his winner in the 1-0 victory against Valencia last weekend. That is now five goals in his last 10 games since Ousmane Dembele got injured.
With Dembele out, as well as Pedri, it is Raphinha coming up with the key moments. While Robert Lewandowski missed an early one-on-one and sent a header wide later on, the Brazilian took his one big chance.
He now has nine goals and nine assists in all competitions for Barca. What's more, he has eight goals in his last 20 games after starting the season with one goal in 17 games.
Best and worst performers
Best: Raphinha, Barcelona
The match-winner for the second week running and tireless in his defensive commitment as well.
Best: Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona
The goalkeeper made a string of fine saves to earn his side all three points.
Best: Alejandro Balde, Barcelona
Dangerous in attack and alert in defence, especially when the pace Nico Williams came over to his side.
Worst: Robert Lewandowski, Barcelona
He took a heavy touch when played through by De Jong in the first half, wasting the chance, and then headed a Balde cross wide after the break.
Worst: Mikel Balenziaga, Athletic Club
The 35-year-old struggled at times against Raphinha and was taken off in the second half.
Worst: Iker Muniain, Athletic Club
He had an impact off the bench but saw one chance saved by Ter Stegen and it was his handball that ruled out his side's late goal.
Highlights and notable moments
Athletic Bilbao weren't without their chances, but you've got to love Gavi's committment to his intervention in the 23rd minute.
Gavi doing whatever it takes to win the ball 😂 pic.twitter.com/I0GwVOtn4L— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 12, 2023
Now that's using your noggin!
Anyway, you probably just want to see Raphina's goal, right? ESPN FC's social media accounts had the highlights in real time:
After a VAR check, Raphinha's goal stands!— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 12, 2023
1-0 Barcelona 🔥 pic.twitter.com/IHcxXejr3Q
It did appear that Bilbao scored an equaliser, which would've put an end to Barcelona's impressive defensive streak, but a lengthy VAR check resulted in the goal being overturned.
Replays showed Iker Muniain's arm touched the ball on the play where Barcelona's Frenkie de Jong lost possession in the midfield, springing Bilbao on a counterattack the other way.
Inaki Williams' equalizer vs. Barca was ruled out by VAR because of a handball in the build up of the goal. pic.twitter.com/8wj0cAm05z— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 12, 2023
After the match: What the managers said
Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez on the result: "It is true we have to play better, but this is a difficult place to come. It's normal to suffer at San Mames. But it's a vital win. We knew it would be a difficult away game."
Hernandez on the crowd's demonstration during the game: "I respect the fans at San Mames. They have always treated me well. I was surprised at the hostile atmosphere towards Barca. It was sad to see. I don't think it's good for society. Everyone is free to (air their opinion) and I respect all opinions, whether I agree with it or not, but it made me sad."
Athletic Club manager Ernesto Valverde on the goal being overturned: "I see the images and I don't know. It's a question of what is football and what is not. 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."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Barcelona's nine wins by 1-0 this season extend the club record for most in a single LaLiga season (most by any team in a single season is 11 by 2017-18 Atlético, 2020-21 Sevilla and 1988-89 Valencia).
This was Raphinha's second time scoring in consecutive matches with Barcelona in all competitions. He has eight goals in his last 20 games after starting the season with one goal in 17 games.
Raphinha's nine goals tie his second most in a single season in his career (all competitions).
The 15 shots by Athletic Club are tied for the second most by any team against Barcelona in LaLiga (20 by Atlético Madrid on Feb. 8 are the most). Barcelona have kept a shutout in seven of the eight games it has allowed the most shots this season in LaLiga.
Athletic Club: Bilbao head to Valladolid for a LaLiga fixture on Friday, March 17 against Real Valladolid (stream live on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET).
Barcelona: Barça have a big one next: another edition of El Clasico against rivals Real Madrid on Sunday, March 19 (stream live on ESPN+ at 4 p.m. ET). Although Barcelona are several points clear on top of the LaLiga table, this derby against second-place Real Madrid could have major implications in the title race.