VAR controversially helps Barcelona beat Bilbao, but Barca’s historic defensive record undeniable

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.

Rapid reaction

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 changed, “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.

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.

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