Raphinha’s strike earned Barcelona an agonising 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao on Sunday to restore their nine-point lead over Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
Real Sociedad stumbled to a 1-1 draw at Real Mallorca, with their bid to finish in the top four losing steam at an alarming rate.
Struggling Sevilla earned an important 2-1 win over Almeria to climb to 13th, two points clear of the relegation zone, leaving their opponents 19th.
In Barcelona’s first game after being charged with corruption by Spanish prosecutors, they shut out the noise and took another step towards their first title since 2019.
The Catalans secured their 19th clean sheet in 25 La Liga games this season as they held on to earn their ninth 1-0 win of the season, keeping second place Madrid at arm’s length after the champions beat Espanyol on Saturday.
Goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen made some superb saves in the second half and Alex Berenguer struck the post, but Athletic could not break down the league leaders.
When Inaki Williams eventually did late on, the goal was disallowed after VAR spotted a handball by Iker Muniain in the build-up.
“In the end what counts (is holding on), we defended with everybody, including in goal, on the goal line, these are games we have to win,” Ter Stegen told DAZN.
“I have not seen the disallowed goal, but that’s why we have VAR. It’s a decision (the officials) have to take. We are very happy to keep another clean sheet.”
With Ronald Araujo suspended, Xavi used Jules Kounde alongside Andreas Christensen and started Sergi Roberto at right-back.
The visitors put in a backs-to-the-wall display to keep Athletic out.
Athletic fans threw fake banknotes with the word “mafia” printed on them into the air, in protest after Barcelona’s corruption charge.
“I respect the fans at San Mames, they have always treated me well,” said Xavi.
“It surprises me this atmosphere of hostility towards Barca. It saddens me there’s hostility towards Barca at San Mames, I don’t think it’s good for society.”
On the pitch the Catalans were under the cosh too, with Ter Stegen denying Williams and Raul Garcia heading against the crossbar.
In-form winger Raphinha finished well from Sergio Busquets’ clever pass before the break, against the run of play, and top scorer Robert Lewandowski missed two good chances on his return from injury.
It was all Athletic again after that, with Berenguer hitting the post and Ter Stegen denying Muniain.
Eventually Williams blasted past Ter Stegen after racing through on goal but Athletic were left infuriated after Muniain’s handball was spotted at the start of the move.
The win leaves the Catalans sitting comfortably clear ahead of next Sunday’s Clasico at Camp Nou, while Athletic are winless in five in the top flight.
“I think that VAR is there to correct big flagrant errors,” Valverde told DAZN.
“Huge errors, balls that went in, or not. Calling the referee because it touched him, or it didn’t touch him… I don’t know if this belongs in the world of football.”
Real Sociedad have just one win in their last nine matches across all competitions and were frustrated by hosts Mallorca, who are 10th.
The Basque side remain fourth, level on 45 points with third-place Atletico Madrid, who visit Girona on Monday.
Carlos Fernandez fired Real Sociedad ahead early on but they could not extend their lead, and soon paid the price with Lee Kang-in levelling.
Real Sociedad captain Mikel Merino was dismissed late on for a late lunge on Abdon Prats to make a disappointing afternoon worse.
“Today we wanted to win and the team’s reaction after their goal was phenomenal,” said Real Sociedad coach Imanol Alguacil.
“Being close (to winning), it escaped us, and we can do nothing else but reset and try to improve.”
However neither Real Betis, fifth, or Villarreal, sixth, could capitalise, sharing a 1-1 draw at Estadio de la Ceramica, with Yeremy Pino’s goal cancelling out Borja Iglesias’ opener.
Sevilla came from behind to beat Almeria in an important battle at the bottom.
Sergio Akieme sent the visitors ahead but Lucas Ocampos levelled from the penalty spot.
Lamela headed home winger Bryan Gil’s cross to win it for Sevilla after 73 minutes, helping Jorge Sampaoli’s side bounce back after their hammering by Atletico last weekend.