Germany's first choice goalkeeper Manuel Neuer will only go to Russia if he is 100 percent fit. The Bayern Munich star has not played since September 2017, but is on course to start Saturday's friendly against Austria.
There was a theory that Germany's strength going into the 2014 World Cup was so great that they had time to worry about who the third string goalkeeper would be.
To say Germany's choice – Ron-Robert Zieler – played a decisive role in Germany winning the tournament in Brazil would be an exaggeration, but the choice was obviously right for the group. Four years later, Germany have another goalkeeping decision to make and this time it will be much more decisive.
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Andreas Köpke, current national team goalkeeping coach, said that Manuel Neuer's return to fitness has created a ‘special situation' in the Germany team. Marc-Andre ter Stegen has perhaps had the best season of his career at Barcelona, and given Neuer's near eight-month absence the 26-year-old had every reason to believe he was the man for the job.
Neuer is a hard man to escape, though. "Manu [Neuer] is our captain and played an important role in 2014. That's why we'll try everything we can until the end,” Köpke said at Tuesday's press conference.
The 32-year-old is already well on course, though. Neuer spent the last two weeks of the season in full training at Bayern, and will have played sixty minutes against the U20s by the time Saturday's friendly against Austria comes around. Köpke expects him to play in that game, and even told Süddeutsche Zeitung that if Neuer wasn't involved in that game then there was no need to talk about a World Cup spot.
Everything points to Neuer playing, and not just against Austria. His injury has fully healed and Köpke admitted "it's like Manu was never away.”
Ter Stegen 'can handle it'
But he has been away, and for ter Stegen all this must be difficult to hear because he has been here the entire time. He has put his poor performances in a Germany shirt behind him, held off the challenge of other goalkeepers at Barcelona and has emerged one of the finest in his position. And yet, he might have to wait until he's 30 to truly have the chance at the number one spot.
"Of course, Marc-Andre wants to play at this World Cup,” Köpke said, highlighting the elephant in the room. "He has improved superbly and had a fantastic season at Barcelona… We've told Marc-Andre we'd have no concerns to go into the tournament in Russia with him as our number one,” Köpke said. "But he knows it's a special situation and he can handle it.”
Ter Stegen clearly has handled competition well before, and he'll likely do so again. But it must be difficult to know whatever he does, there's no getting past Manuel Neuer.
"What he went through was brutal,” Köpke said when asked about Loris Karius' errors in the Champions League final. While ter Stegen missing out to Neuer is not comparable to game-changing mistakes in a final, it is still somewhat brutal that an in-form ter Stegen must make way for a keeper that hasn't played since September 2017.