Links between Barcelona defender Marc Bartra and Premier League side Manchester United are growing after the player's agent, ex-Barca centre-back Carles Puyol, posted a picture of himself in Manchester.
Puyol posted the picture on his personal Twitter account, per Spanish website Fichajes (h/t Jamie Anderson of the Daily Star). He was joined by Ivan de la Pena, the agent of Athletic Bilbao's centre-back Aymeric Laporte.
The report claims Bartra is still a top target for United: "Spanish publication Fichajes claim United are leading contenders to sign the defender, who is valued at a modest £9.5m."
Anderson also claims Puyol's familiarity with United's decision-makers could help swing the deal: "The Barcelona legend shares an excellent relationship with Louis van Gaal and could be useful in helping United manoeuvre the deal."
Barta's lack of playing time is seen as a major reason why the Red Devils believe they can eventually seal a transfer for the versatile reserve, according to Anderson: "Bartra, 25, has amassed just 342 minutes of La Liga football this season and is firmly behind Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique in the pecking order."
Lucas Sposito of Sport Witness notes how United have been interested in Bartra for some time, as well as how the Old Trafford club may take advantage of a clause in the player's contract: "Bartra has was linked to Manchester United back in November. The player reportedly wants more game time and finds it difficult to get in Barcelona. He has a £20m release clause, which shall be decreased in the summer if he doesn’t have a certain percentage of starts during the season."
It makes sense for transfer links regarding Bartra to continue. He's barely played under manager Luis Enrique, in a squad loaded with plenty of options at the heart of defence.
Pique and Mascherano are the obvious starters, but Thomas Vermaelen and Jeremy Mathieu can also be called upon. That leaves Bartra on the outside looking in.
The emergence this season of Sergi Roberto, who has filled in at full-back, a position Bartra can also play, hasn't helped the player's cause either.
With this in mind, ESPN FC's Lee Roden believes only a move away can revive Bartra's ailing career. Rodden notes how the player's lack of match practice has shown in some below-par performances this season: "When given a chance this season the young centre-back has looked far too uncertain in one-on-one situations and has made notable errors in judgement. Yet without regular playing time, it will be almost impossible to correct those issues."
United can offer Bartra increased opportunities, with current manager Louis van Gaal needing to improve his options at the back.
Although Chris Smalling has developed well, United have struggled to fill the position next to the England man. Phil Jones' injury problems aren't going away, while Van Gaal has forced natural midfield utility man Daley Blind into an unfamiliar position.
The decision to play Blind in the middle speaks volumes of what Van Gaal wants from his central defenders. Specifically, he wants a player comfortable on the ball and capable of playing out from the back.
Bartra fits the bill having been schooled in Barca's distinctive and stylish brand of possession-based football.
Although he's still relatively young and inexperienced, the Spaniard fits the profile of players Van Gaal has tried to bring in at United. He hasn't been afraid to hand chances to youngsters such as Tyler Blackett and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.
But wrapping up a deal for Bartra would give United a talented prospect ready to take the next step in his career and realise his potential. The opportunity to do so doesn't look likely at the Camp Nou.
Puyol's appearance may be mere coincidence. But if not, it could be a signal of Barca's willingness to finally give up on one breakthrough member of their famed youth academy.