Barcelona’s Marc Bartra has long been tipped as a future star for club and country, but having turned 25 last week, the time has come for him to seek out regular first team football somewhere else.
Bartra was back on the bench for Barca’s 6-0 La Liga win at home to Athletic Bilbao last weekend, and only appeared as a substitute as usual back-up Jeremy Mathieu had picked up a knock at training earlier in the week.
The La Masia graduate has been a first team squad member at Barca for over five years now, with more than 100 senior games and a Copa del Rey final goal against Real Madrid on his CV. But he is clearly currently fifth choice for blaugrana coach Luis Enrique - behind Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano, Thomas Vermaelen and Mathieu.
Even before he made his first team debut back in February 2010, Bartra’s many admirers among blaugrana fans and pundits have expected the Tarragona-born player to eventually nail down a regular place in the first team.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque also seems to be a fan - having regularly included Bartra in senior squads over the last 18 months, and giving him a seventh cap alongside Pique in November’s 2-0 friendly win over England.
Luis Enrique, who also trained a teenage Bartra when they were both at Barca B, seems less impressed. In the 34 official games this season, Bartra has completed the 90 minutes just five times. His only start since October was the final Champions League group game at Bayer Leverkusen, which came after qualification as top seeds has already been secured. Two of his three La Liga starts came when Pique was suspended early in the campaign - on the other he was subbed off with Eibar causing Barca’s defence all sorts of trouble at the Camp Nou in October.
Even when Pique was rested for last week’s Copa del Rey second leg formality at Espanyol, Mascherano was paired with Vermaelen at the back. Asked regularly through recent press conferences about Bartra’s situation, Luis Enrique has denied any ‘ostracism’ of the player, while more or less admitting that he preferred his other options in defence.
“I am happy with Bartra, how he is training and getting ready for games,” the Asturian coach said last week. “Unfortunately, he has to wait until he gets that playing time. I don’t make public what I ask from him, I say it to him. I know Marc Bartra for a long time and he knows what a Barca centre-back needs. I have nothing to give out to him about. He must wait for his chance and take advantage of it.”
Such a situation has unsurprisingly lead to an increase in transfer speculation around a player who through recent years has been linked with pretty much all of the Premier League’s top clubs.
A quiet character on and off the pitch, Bartra appears to be happy enough with life in the Catalan capital. Despite being in a similar situation back in March 2014, with reported interest then from Liverpool, Spurs, Inter Milan and Valencia, he extended his contract up to June 2017. That deal included a release clause of €35 million, although a lack of games last season reportedly meant he was available at a cut-price €10 million in the summer. Again, despite there being plenty of reported interested parties, no move ever materialised.
“I like to watch the Premier League,” he told FourFourTwo just last autumn. “English football is a little anarchic, full of one-v-ones. I like that, but my heart is in Barca. My aim is to become a titular (regular starter) at Barça, to start the most important games and to win trophies.”
It could be that Barca themselves will now force the situation however. Luis Enrique has been very clear that he feels his team needs more options in attack. His primary target is Celta Vigo’s Nolito, but the club do not have the €18 million needed to resign the former Barca B forward this month. Reports that the Catalans are interested in Everton's younger, similarly composed but already more established John Stones also seem to suggest Bartra is not in their long-term thinking.
A move now could really suit all parties. Barca could get the funds to buy a badly needed back-up for their superstar front three, by selling a player who is not highly rated by the coach. And Bartra could get a fresh start at a new club where he is valued just in time to make sure he keeps his international squad place ahead of the summer’s European Championships in France.
Another factor to watch is reports last November that Bartra was switching representation and joining former Barca legend Carles Puyol’s new agency. Puyol would be able to sympathise with his friend and former teammate's wish to follow in his footsteps at the Camp Nou, but might be advised to gently persuade his client that this is just not going to happen.
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