Barcelona midfielder Pedri Gonzalez earned his side a tense 1-0 Catalan derby victory at Girona on Saturday, opening a six-point gap ahead of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga.
With Carlo Ancelotti’s side hosting high-flying Real Sociedad on Sunday, Barca put their rivals under pressure to get a result and keep up with them in the title race.
Pedri netted the only goal from close range after an hour at an icy Montilivi on his 100th appearance for Barcelona, after replacing the injured Ousmane Dembele.
The French forward limped off in the first half, pulling up after a sprint and asking to be replaced, a blow for Barcelona considering his superb recent form.
Barca coach Xavi Hernandez said the winger appeared to have a quadriceps injury.
Despite the narrow margin of victory, Xavi believes his team is significantly stronger than when he took over in November 2021.
“We have to be self-critical and improve in many ways, but we are happy, we have to look at where we came from,” Xavi told reporters.
“The change to the team and a lot of players is big, we have many things to improve on, but we’re on the right path.
“I think the (biggest difference) is the confidence of the players – when we arrived their confidence was on the floor.”
Defensively the Catalans have been strong, conceding just six league goals this season and winning their last three matches 1-0 – they are unbeaten in 13 consecutive matches across all competitions.
“I think at grounds like this you have to win, however you do it,” Barcelona defender Jules Kounde told DAZN.
“We can play better, but in these away games, against opponents playing well, winning is vital.
“I think keeping a clean sheet is key. The whole team works defensively, not just the back four. Everyone is working well.”
The league leaders were still without suspended Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, missing his final game after a three-match ban.
Dembele, who fired Barcelona into the Copa del Rey semifinals against Real Sociedad midweek, was forced off injured after 25 minutes.
His first years at Barcelona were hampered by injuries but since Xavi’s arrival, the forward had been able to stay fit and firing.
Xavi brought on Jordi Alba for Marcos Alonso at the break and it made the difference for Barcelona, who had been sluggish.
The left-back set up Pedri’s opener with a cross from the left, tapped in by the Spaniard at the back post at the end of the first incisive move Barcelona had put together all game.
Pedri, whom Xavi had intended to rest, reached a century of appearances for Barca at just 20 years old and celebrated with his 15th goal for the club.
“I know I have to improve in front of goal (but) right now they are going in for me,” Pedri told DAZN.
Ronald Araujo headed a cross off his own goal line under pressure as Girona pushed for an equaliser, throwing men forward.
Ivan Martin missed a fine chance in stoppage time for the hosts as Barcelona lost all control of the game but survived a nervy finale to earn the win.
Girona also appealed for a penalty as Eric Garcia tangled with Cristhian Stuani in the area.
“There are situations in the box in which these tangles are given and sometimes not,” said Girona coach Michel, who was sent off in stoppage time for complaining about a foul by Frenkie de Jong.
“Today, the final result is not due to the refereeing performance, I prefer to say these games are won by the players.”
Sevilla thrashed Elche 3-0 to climb to 13th, their third win in four league games seeing them move provisionally four points clear of the relegation zone.
Youssuf En-Nesyri netted a brace either side of Marcos Acuna’s drive in a first half blitz.
Winless Elche, who had Pedro Bigas sent off in the 41st minute, are bottom of the table and 11 points from safety.
Earlier Cadiz climbed out of the relegation zone with a 2-0 win over Real Mallorca.