Don't let one match fool you, these were exceptional circumstances.
Lavish, extravagant and most importantly, abundant levels of praise have been heaped upon Lionel Messi and the magic of his ability. However, as is so often with great victors, the story of the defeat is often lost or forgotten. Rarely does the question arise, “what about their opponents”? Has anyone thought about them in the context of this footballing master-class? There have been countless teams to fall under the proverbial sword of Barcelona’s play and recently it was Bayer Leverkusen who stood out in defeat. Although slightly altered in terms of personnel, this was a side that had beaten Bayern Munich by two clear goals the weekend before their encounter in the Nou Camp. Yet for the majority of their time in modern football’s colosseum they were mere pedestrians. The collateral damage that so many sides effectively become during and after playing Barcelona is extremely interesting, not merely because of the impact it may well have on that team’s season but also on an individual’s career.
The Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper, Bernd Leno, was most definitely one of those. To many, he is merely another goalkeeper. Another target for Messi to aim at even. He is, however, a member of a vastly growing and quite frankly, terrifying group of German goalkeepers competing to become the best in their country and maybe even the world. The 90 minutes in the Nou Camp will have been without doubt 90 of the most important footballing minutes in Bernd Leno’s career.
Firstly, because I doubt he will ever be in goal and concede seven goals in the space of 90 minutes again and secondly because of the choice he now faces. He will either become great or stagnate, as so many do. The more goals Messi scored, the more Leno seemed to buckle under the psychological battle between striker and goalkeeper but in all honesty, can we blame him for doing so? He himself will be frustrated by some of the goals he conceded, but in the context of the game, it seemed somewhat inevitable. The crowd were baying after all.
For his sake, I hope this does make him a better and stronger goalkeeper. I hope he merely acknowledges that on the night, he and his team were confronted by something, or should I say someone, extraordinary. The question is though, what do Leverkusen and Germany do if the positive reaction is not stumbled upon? What happens, albeit unlikely in my opinion, if Leno does not go on to achieve the success his talent merits? Although he has yet to break onto the international scene, he represents a group of talented youngsters that are on the verge of international recognition.
Bernd Leno is a mere 20 years of age (not 19 as certain television channels persisted on stating) and could be your stereotypical German Bundesliga goalkeeper. The average age of the starting number one goalkeeper in the Bundesliga is 26. That figure alone suggests to me that Germany rid themselves of the myth that older goalkeepers are more experienced a long time ago. The days of Butt, Lehmann and Kahn are no more; a younger guard has stepped into place. Of the 18 starting goalkeepers (in this case, the preferred number one choice) in the Bundesliga, 16 are German, with only Drobny (Czech) at Hamburg and Benaglio (Swiss) at Wolfsburg not German nationals. Of that 16, 10 have had either full or U21 caps for Germany.
That statistic is not to be understated because it is more often than not that the goalkeeper that makes an U21 appearance does in fact go on to appear for the national side. Furthermore, with an increase in quality comes an increase in competition and the number one jersey for the U21 side is currently nowhere near a simple choice. The same could be said for the national side as Manuel Neuer continues to support his critics. He has recently given more hope to the ten other potential suitors through some fairly average performances of his own. Recent errors of judgement have not only put pressure on him, especially as they are no longer considered anomalies (three goal resulting errors this season alone) but also on his side, who are on the verge of falling away from the title race that was apparently “theirs to lose”.
The importance of competition for places should not be underestimated either. The current number one choice for Germany’s U21 side is Marc-Andre ter Stegen, the number one at Gladbach. He has been in fantastic form ever since Gladbach called on him last season and has been part of the reason they are still challenging the front-runners. The young goalkeeper is only 19 years old. Kevin Trapp, 21, is first choice for 1. FC Kaiserslautern and is currently competing with club rival Tobias Sippel, 23, for the number one spot. Injury to Trapp has given Sippel a chance to impress once again, with Sippel boasting 9 U21 caps to Trapp’s mere inclusion. Sven Ulreich at Stuttgart and Oliver Baumann at Freiburg, are both 21 and each have 3 U21 caps.
The most recent of promotions from the U21 side to the first team was non-other than Ron-Robert Zieler, who is 23 and current number one at Hanover 96. His debut for Germany was a game of mixed emotion for the young goalkeeper. He conceded three goals in 17 minutes as the Ukraine surprised Germany with some quite literally, unstoppable efforts. The game finished a draw with Zieler, showing no apparent bruising of confidence, making two outstanding saves. Ironically, he is ex-Manchester United and some Northampton Town fans might even recognise the name due to the two game loan spell he had at the club. It seems bizarre to me that he wasn’t favoured at Manchester United but that won’t bother Hannover 96 or the Bundesliga one bit.
Returning to our young star Leno, he kept his place in goal after keeping out Rene Adler, one of Germany’s best goalkeepers, after the ten capped international sustained an injury. Injuries have been the reason Adler has failed to rise to the heights he looked so destined to reach but he has now stated, with Leno’s form quite obviously ousting him from his own position, he wishes to leave at the end of the season. It appears Hamburg will sign him in the summer, selling Drobny in order to facilitate the move and if this move does take place, this will simply alter the statistics further in favour of German footballing development, leaving only Diego Benaglio as the only non-German first choice goalkeeper in the Bundesliga.
This is aided by the German FA’s choice to favour the promotion of the national side over the financial benefits of a worldwide attraction to the national league after the disaster of France ‘98. There has been great discussion of whether England should follow suit and although I do not wish to discuss England at great length, I must state two things. Firstly, if England had chosen a national side development option over a lucrative national league, I would expect a similar number of first choice goalkeepers in the Premiership to have international experience and to be battling for the number one jersey.
Secondly, I would say that although the emphasis has been on national development all the way down to the roots of the game in Germany, the Bundesliga remains one of the most watched leagues in the world. They have arguably not lost out in any way. Yes, publicly the recognition is far less than it should be and there are fewer world-class players than in the Premier League or La Liga, but the league remains one of the best in the world. It’s far more exciting, unpredictable and ultimately skilful than people expect.
If all of this evidence isn’t enough to convince you that Bernd Leno still is a good goalkeeper or in fact that if Manuel Neuer does get injured this summer, it really isn’t an issue for Germany, then I’ll leave you with one simple thought to ponder, namely the amazing architecture of the majority of German goalkeepers hair. In a job where the convenience of shorter hair is greater than arguably any other, the German goalkeepers in question have simply taken control of this potentially difficult situation. Tim Wiese has the most fantastic slicked-back locks that seem never to unnerve him during the ninety minutes and have stopped him representing Germany on six occasions. Christian Wetklo, Heinz Müller and Roman Weidenfeller are also worthy competitors but for me, there can only be one winner. Simon Jentzsch, has what appears to be a veritable mat of hair which whilst providing a tactic of terror to the opposition, can put us in no doubt, with Jentzsch performing well for Ausgburg this year, that not only are the goalkeeper’s skills maintained to a high level in the Bundesliga, but so is their hair.
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