Barcelona's Lionel Messi in action with Athletic Bilbao's Ander Iturraspe and Eneko Boveda (Reuters)
Lionel Messi scored his 12th league goal of the season but Barcelona had to rely on some exceptional saves from Marc-Andre ter Stegen as they rode their luck to win 2-0 at Athletic Bilbao on Saturday and stay four points clear at the top of La Liga.
Barca withstood an early onslaught from coach Ernesto Valverde's former side and German international Ter Stegen made two big saves to thwart veteran striker Aritz Aduriz.
With the game still goalless, Messi missed a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring after dancing through the Bilbao defence, striking against the near post with the goal gaping. However, he made amends by breaking the deadlock in the 36th minute.
In the second half, Athletic forward Inigo Cordoba whistled a shot over the bar and Aduriz was denied twice more by the commanding Ter Stegen, while Raul Garcia headed against the woodwork for the persistent hosts.
Brazilian midfielder Paulinho added a barely deserved second goal for Barca in stoppage time, tapping a parried shot from Luis Suarez into an empty net as Athletic were outnumbered on the counter-attack.
The Catalans lead the standings on 28 points, four clear of Valencia in second and eight above champions Real Madrid, who visit Girona on Sunday.