Ernesto Valverde enjoyed a triumphant return to Athletic Bilbao as a first-half goal from Lionel Messi and a late second from Paulinho secured Barcelona a 2-0 win at San Mames.
Facing the club he represented as both a player and a coach for the first time since taking charge of Barcelona, Valverde watched on as the talismanic Messi converted Jordi Alba’s cut-back cross in the 36th minute to score his 12th LaLiga goal in 10 games this season.
The visitors needed a fine reactionary save from Marc-Andre ter Stegen to remain ahead before Paulinho secured the three points in stoppage time, tapping home the rebound after Luis Suarez’s shot had been saved.
The Brazilian’s strike condemned Athletic to an eighth straight league defeat against the Catalans, although it wasn’t for a lack of effort against the unbeaten league leaders in Spain.
Still, Barcelona’s hard-fought victory moves them four points clear of second-placed Valencia in the table and eight ahead of reigning champions Real Madrid, who now cannot afford any mistakes when they visit Girona on Sunday.