Liverpool target Marc Bartra could move on from Barcelona
For many Barcelona-supporting Catalans, the international break means little more than praying that players don't return to the Camp Nou injured, but the current bout of friendlies was different, as it presented a rare chance for them to see one of their own in action.
With Sergio Ramos leaving the Spain squad early due to injury, La Roja needed a replacement centre-back for their game against Romania, and Vicente del Bosque's answer was to hand Marc Bartra 90 minutes at the Cluj Arena. That meant the defender has now started as many games for his national team as he has for his club in 2016, a clear indicator of how difficult his present situation at Barca is.
Bartra acquitted himself well against Romania. Alert in recognising when it was necessary to cover the space behind Jordi Alba and authoritative when correcting any gaps left by Gerard Pique's forays forward, he was particularly strong in the air, winning all of his defensive aerial contests.
In possession, the young defender was assured, passing out from the back competently, and taking on the responsibility of playing probing longer balls forward following Pique's second half substitution. He even chipped in at the other end of the pitch, a deft touch in the opposition area contributing to Spain's best attacking move. This certainly wasn't a footballer that looked a cut below the level of the players around him.
That will only have served as a reminder of how frustrating Bartra's club situation is. With 1082 minutes played in 2015-16 he is Barcelona's fifth choice centre-back, placing him firmly behind fourth choice Thomas Vermaelen, who has managed 1271 minutes, despite being injured for 38 days in the autumn. The Catalan's last start in La Liga came on Oct. 25 against Eibar, and he seems to be paying a heavy price for a mistake in that game, where he was withdrawn early in the second half following a loss of possession in the build-up to Borja Baston's goal.
While other back-up defenders manage to get away with lapses in concentration, Bartra's card seems to have been particularly harshly marked. Jeremy Mathieu's horror show in the second half against Villarreal on March 20 was a clear example of the different rules Luis Enrique has for different players
When the Frenchman entered the field of play the Blaugrana were 2-0 up, and his mistakes played a key part in both of Villarreal's subsequent goals. That could have been put down as an off night, except it had already happened on several previous occasions this season, not least when he helped Deportivo to get back into a December fixture at the Camp Nou, which also ended in a 2-2 draw after an initial 2-0 Barca lead.
Bartra sat on the sidelines and watched his teammate's debacle that afternoon, just as he did at El Madrigal, and left with plenty to contemplate.
According to his friend, MotoGP rider Aleix Espargaro, the academy product is frustrated with his situation. "He's sad. He works a lot, tries a lot, and doesn't understand what he's doing wrong," Espargaro told Catalunya Radio on March 10.
That is surely a situation that the player can't endure for much longer. Bartra's contract with Barcelona runs out in 2017, so the club has to decide if they want to cash in this summer, or risk losing him for nothing the following year. Alternatively, they could offer him a contract extension, but even if they did, would he want to renew if he isn't playing? Good centre-backs are hard to find, so he won't be short of options for a better chance elsewhere.
Particularly as on paper Bartra has a number of attractive qualities for top clubs. Sign him and you know you're getting a centre-back who is strong in the air, excellent with the ball at his feet, and if not necessarily lightning quick on the ground, hardly slow either. Evidently he needs regular playing time to properly judge just how good his concentration levels are over 90 minutes, and he could probably do with gaining some muscle, but he is still only 25. Get him now, iron out the kinks, and in two years you could have a great all-round central defender at his peak. That's not a simple thing to come across in the current market.
Liverpool are one side said to be interested in taking a punt, and they won't be the last. It would be unfathomable if Pep Guardiola isn't keeping an eye on his compatriot, aware that Manchester City's defence needs a significant overhaul. Bartra is familiar with the manager's style of play, is still young enough to be moulded, and could be the ideal centre-back to help initiate play from the back at the Etihad, something that will be one of the first big challenges for City's new coach. Guardiola took advantage of a similar situation with Thiago Alcantara when he moved to Bayern. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the wily coach try to tempt another of his former players into a move.
Regardless of where Bartra ultimately ends up, staying at Barca seems the least likely outcome. There is a significant sector of the club's support (not least in the local media) that thinks losing him through inactivity would be a mistake, but to Barcelona's credit, they rarely get these calls on centre-backs wrong.
Andreu Fontas, Marc Muniesa and Sergi Gomez were let go from similar situations in the past, and none have gone on to become world-beaters. They certainly haven't pushed on to the level necessary to start for Barca.
Bartra was supposed to be the best of the bunch, but unless something dramatic changes he will still have to seek his fortune elsewhere.
Perhaps that something dramatic could come at Euro 2016 this summer. With three international starts this season, his Spain future looks guaranteed at least.
Lee Roden is a European football writer based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter: @LeeRoden89.