Can Ter Stegen claim Barcelona's No. 1 keeper role with Bravo injured?
Amicable though it may be at the moment, Barcelona's unique goalkeeping situation is unsustainable in the long term, and its durability could be put to the test.
The calf strain Claudio Bravo suffered in training this week means he could miss a minimum of two weeks of action, throwing open a window of opportunity for Marc-Andre ter Stegen ahead of a huge trip to Atletico Madrid on Saturday. Should the German seize his chance, he won't be keen to let the job go without a fight.
Manager Luis Enrique's policy of using Bravo in La Liga and Ter Stegen in the cup competitions last season worked, but its success was built on temporary conditions. Still a youngster relative to his position on the pitch, Ter Stegen humbly accepted the necessity of learning the ropes upon moving to a new country, as he faced both bigger challenges and more scrutiny than at Barcelona than he did at boyhood side Borussia Monchengladbach. Bravo, meanwhile, saw his status as the veteran of the two respected by the regularity of playing week in, week out in the league.
The Chilean's reward was his first Spanish league title after almost a decade of toiling away in the nation with Real Sociedad, and he was also recognised individually by taking home the Zamora trophy for conceding the fewest goals in La Liga. Ter Stegen, for his part, had the Copa del Rey and Champions League to show for his efforts, not to mention a place in the UEFA Team of the Season, as well as the European body's award for best save in 2014-15.
Come the end of the year, both keepers had plenty to be content with despite the rotation, yet ironically enough, the same trophy wins that helped Luis Enrique's policy work were also the first step towards exposing its obvious weakness. If there is one thing success brings it is the desire for further reward, and for one of the two Barcelona keepers the pursuit of that is particularly relevant right now.
Ter Stegen's cup performances at Barca have been acknowledged by Germany manager Joachim Low this month, who has called him up to the German national team after a period away from the set-up. As pleasing as that will have been, the Champions League winner nonetheless sat unused on the bench as Manuel Neuer played the entirety of wins against Poland and Scotland. Perhaps that could be food for thought for the player?
That Ter Stegen didn't play in September's Euro 2016 qualifiers is no surprise: Neuer's status as first choice for his country will be beyond debate while he continues to perform excellently every week at Bayern. What will be a surprise is if his compatriot ever manages to challenge that position while only making appearances in cup competitions at club level, those playing opportunities sporadic at times thanks to the irregular Copa del Rey and Champions League calendars.
Therein lies the weakness in Luis Enrique's policy -- it can only work while Ter Stegen is content with being an apprentice. As soon as he desires something bigger, it starts to fall apart.
Incredible though it seems, Ter Stegen will be making his La Liga debut against Atletico this weekend, despite having a full season at the Camp Nou under his belt. There is a degree of déjà vu about his situation, albeit with the shoe on the other foot this time around.
In August of last year, a preseason back injury picked up by the German effectively ended the debate over which of Barcelona's two strongest goalkeepers should start the first game of the La Liga campaign. The timing of that fitness issue was particularly fatal. Ter Stegen had joined Barca several weeks before Bravo, who not only signed later but also needed to recover from international duty with Chile at the World Cup. That meant the younger of the duo spent significantly longer training under his new coach, absorbing Barcelona's tactical concepts. A point that should have worked in his favour, had fitness issues not struck.
This time around, it was Bravo that looked best placed to gain some meaningful distance on his challenger only for an injury to ruin the plan. In contrast to the older keeper's assured displays in the first two league games of the season, Ter Stegen has started the competitive year on shaky footing.
He conceded eight goals in two cup games against Athletic Club and Sevilla, the most damaging one was a high-profile individual error in the Supercopa de España, when an attempt at a headed clearance resulted in Athletic's Mikel San Jose volleying home from the middle of the pitch. Just as Luis Enrique may have been contemplating a change in his first choice league stopper for the year ahead, the question was more or less answered for him by an error in judgement. Stick, rather than twist.
Yet only a few weeks later, that question may just be up for debate once more, provided Ter Stegen can rise to the challenge. Already a cup hero, the trip to the Vicente Calderon is a golden opportunity to gain a foothold in the league. Take it, and maybe Bravo will be the one left pondering his next move. With less time on his side than a player 10 years his junior, he may not be equally content to see league appearances give way to the uncertainty of the cups.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.