These past few months, be they spent sitting in the stands at stadiums around La Liga, watching through their hands from the comfort of the couch or painfully waiting for timelines to update on Twitter, Culés worldwide have been trying to predict Luís Enrique`s matchday starting eleven in the run up to kick off.
A marquee front three have essentially been picking themselves (with occasional relief from Pedrito) and we`ve seen continual rotation in midfield that has brought great improvements in the form of new boys Ivan Rakitic & Rafinha Alcantara. Arguably at the expense of Andrés Iniesta and Xavi, but no one would argue that Barcelona have needed to blood new players in these positions in preparation for the eventual retirement of the dynamic duo.
A bone of contention among fans online has been rotation at centre back that has continued throughout the season (complaining because we have options at centre half having bitched about the board not signing anyone for 4 previous years, typical "sunny-side-up" Blaugrana optimism I know!).
Yesterday afternoon, in the absence of the suspended Piqué, Marc Bartra was given a starting berth alongside Frenchman Jeremy Mathieu. Despite a penalty call being given against the man from Sant Jaume dels Domenys (correctly so, it must be said), the player performed with the usual poise expected from someone who not too long ago had marshalled a Spanish defence to a European U21 Title. By no means was it the most polished performance of the season from Barca, however at the heart of defence, it was Bartra who looked a more assured performer in the role than his seasoned ginger-haired counterpart from Luxeuil-Les-Bains.
It was a performance that once again asked the question, one that many have been repeating all season – Why doesn`t he play more often?
Since late November/Early December, Culés have seen Gerard Piqué`s form return to that which saw him considered among the finest central defenders in the world just a few seasons ago. Lately, it seems that Luis Enrique has only really had to pick one centre half as Piqué has once again asserted himself as the primary choice at that position. Jeremy Mathieu has made 16 appearances in La Liga this season, 15 of which were in the central position. Barring a few exceptions where he played in his preferred defensive midfield role, the majority of Javier Mascherano`s 17 league appearances this season have also been as a central defender.
We come then to Bartra who made only his 8th appearance in the league today. Without fail, whenever Lucho has turned to his 24 year old, home-grown option, the player has performed with a mix of poise and effective aggression that has endeared him to fans. Puyol-esque in his willingness to throw himself in harms way to prevent the goal being breached and reminiscent of Piqué with his comfort on the ball and ability to play out from defence.
"Marc will become a lot better than me, because he's faster, braver and smarter"
At this point, most of us will be familiar with this quote as well as its source and few would argue that the potential isn`t there. However how much longer can a defender of Bartra`s promise sit around and play a bit part in his team? He must surely know that his quality is coveted by many top tier sides, not only in Spain, but all around Europe. At 24, Piqué had already realised that first team football at Manchester United, undoubtedly one of the giants of European football, was not on the horizon yet, upon leaving, went on to win a Champions League with another club within a season. Put simply, professional footballers are extremely competitive people and with that competitive nature, sometimes comes envy or even jealousy. Surely Bartra must feel a longing for the successes enjoyed by his teammates and want to emulate the same, no matter what the club.
"My brain said Marc, go to another team where you can play and do what you like. But my heart said no, that I had to stay here"
Words uttered not too long ago. However, one can`t help but wonder how long a player can be marginalised within a team without pondering what the logical solution must be.
Despite a promising start to the season, even the most ardent Barca fan would do well to argue that Jeremy Mathieu has performed well enough to warrant the number of appearances he`s been given. Javier Mascherano remains a truly phenomenal player, one of the heroes of Barcelona throughout the past 5 seasons and has brought his astonishing World Cup form into this season. In the defensive midfield position or even in place of Sergio Busquets at pivote, there is no one better in world football today. However, despite admirable performances at the position, he has never been a central defender and at times Barcelona have been exposed as a result of this.
Bartra, ever present and always ready to take his place in the side, is sitting and waiting for a real chance in the first team. A consecutive run of games that will allow him show the class that he undoubtedly has. Another campaign where he is restricted to minimal appearances brings forth the real possibility that his hand may be forced and we might see a move away. By the ghost of Puyol, let`s hope not!