Barcelona extend defensive record amid VAR controversy

Raphinha provided a match-winner for the second straight week as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao in another 1-0 win, this time in San Mames on Sunday, despite some late drama when Inaki Williams ruled out an equalizer from VAR.

Williams thought he deserved a point for the home side in the 87th minute simply because his attempt was disallowed after a touchline check for a handball from Iker Muniain under construction.

Bilbao’s Yuri Berchiche and Gorka Guruzeta then had great chances to equalize in added 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 ahead of next weekend El Classico at Camp Nou.

Fast reaction

1. VAR decision earns Barcelona three important points

There was already a fiery atmosphere in San Mames on Sunday after a week of charges against Barcelona by Spanish prosecutors for trying to buy the referees’ favor – something the club vehemently deny. In the 30th minute, Athletic fans threw fake banknotes onto the pitch with Barca’s badge and the word ‘Mafia’ on it, changing it to ‘To the second division’.

That was nothing compared to the whistles that greeted the full-time whistle after the big VAR decision of the game against Athletic was made.

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Williams passed Barcelona for a ball over the top and shot past Marc-Andre ter Stegen for what appeared to be a well-executed equaliser. Nothing seemed amiss at first, but referee Gil Manzano was soon advised to double-check the play. After checking, he canceled the goal for a handball from Munian at the other end of the field in the sequence where Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong lost the ball.

Still, Athletic could have picked up a point. Berchiche and Guruzeta saw shots blocked on the line in a frenzied end of the game. Earlier, Alex Berenguer and Raul Garcia both hit the woodwork for Athletic Bilbao and Ter Stegen saved against Muniain and Williams.

Manager Ernesto Valverde’s side need to recover quickly. Athletic Club, despite a five-game winless streak in all competitions, are still in contention for a place in Europe and are in the Copa del Rey semi-finals.

2. Barcelona’s clean sheet pushes title fight ahead of El Clasico

Barca’s last goal on Sunday had an element of luck, but their numbers throughout the season are no coincidence.

They now have 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.

However, this may have been her closest shave to date. The 15 shots Athletic mustered were the second most Barca have allowed this season (Atletico Madrid managed 20 in January) and required goalkeeper Ter Stegen to be at his best once again. Ter Stegen has already achieved his best 19 clean sheets in the league in a single season, with 13 more games to go this season. Defenders Andreas Christensen, Jules Kounde and Alejandro Balde also made important contributions at various moments.

The clean sheets meant that Barca didn’t always have to excel in attack and a goal is often enough. They have won 1-0 in LaLiga nine times this season and that means they will have a nine-point lead when they visit Madrid next week. A Clasico win would put them within reach of their first league title since 2019.

3. Raphinha delivers in Dembele’s absence

Raphinha often drew criticism in his first season at Barcelona but now he’s winning those games on a regular basis.

His goal against Athletic came fresh from his winner in last weekend’s 1-0 win over Valencia. That’s now five goals in his last 10 games since Ousmane Dembele’s injury.

With Dembele and Pedri, it’s Raphinha who comes up with the key moments. While Robert Lewandowski missed an early one-on-one and later headed wide, the Brazilian took his one big chance.

He now has nine goals and nine assists in all competitions for Barca. Additionally, he has scored 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 in a row and tireless on defense too.

Best: Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Barcelona

The keeper made a series of great saves to give his side all three points.

Best: Alejandro Balde, Barcelona

Dangerous in attack and alert in defence, especially when pace Nico Williams came his way.

Worst: Robert Lewandowski, Barcelona

He took a heavy touch when he was 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 substituted in the second half.

Worst: Iker Muniain, Athletic Club

He had served off the bench but saw a chance from ter Stegen and it was his handball that ruled out his side’s late goal.

Highlights and notable moments

Athletic Bilbao were not without chances but you have to love Gavi’s dedication to his 23rd minute intervention.

Well that’s with 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:

It appeared Bilbao struck an equalizer that would have put an end to Barcelona’s impressive defensive streak, but a protracted VAR review resulted in the goal being annulled.

Replays showed Iker Muniain’s arm touching the ball as Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong lost the ball in midfield and Bilbao rebounded the other way on a counterattack.

After the game: What the coaches said

Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez on the result:It’s true that we have to play better, but it’s a difficult pitch. It’s normal to suffer in San Mames. But it’s a crucial win. We knew it was going to be a difficult away game.”

Hernandez on the crowd demonstration during the game: I respect the fans in San Mames. You have always treated me well. I was surprised by the hostile atmosphere towards Barca. It was sad to see. I don’t think it’s good for society. Everyone is free (to express their opinion) and I respect all opinions, whether I agree with them or not, but it made me sad.”

Athletic Club Manager Ernesto Valverde on overturning the goal: “I see the pictures and I don’t know. It’s a question of what football is and what it isn’t. I think VAR is there to correct blatant mistakes. That’s why it came in. Big mistakes. Balls that went in or not . Calling the referee to see if he 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 Statistics (provided by ESPN Stats & Information Research)

  • Barcelona’s nine 1-0 wins this season extend club record for most in a single LaLiga season (most by any team in a single season are 11 from Atlético 2017-18, Sevilla 2020-21 and Valencia 1988-89) .

  • This was Raphinha’s second goal in consecutive games against Barcelona in all competitions. He has scored eight goals in his last 20 games after starting the season with one goal in 17 games.

  • Raphinha’s nine goals are the second-highest in a single season of his career (all competitions).

  • Athletic Club’s 15 shots are the second-most of any team against Barcelona in LaLiga (Atlético Madrid’s 20 on February 8 is the most). Barcelona have kept a shutout in seven of the eight games they have allowed the most shots in LaLiga this season.


sports club: Bilbao travel to Valladolid for a LaLiga game against Real Valladolid on Friday 17 March (stream live on ESPN+ at 4pm ET).

Barcelona: Barça have a big thing next: another edition of El Classico against rivals Real Madrid on Sunday March 19 (live stream on ESPN+ at 4pm ET). Although Barcelona are several points clear at the top of the LaLiga table, this derby against second-placed Real Madrid could have a big impact in the title race. Barcelona extend defensive record amid VAR controversy

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