x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Fortune has smiled on Schalke goalkeeper Manuel Neuer

When he looks at the scar on his thumb, the keeper, destined for a big-money move, is reminded that his success is down to luck as well as bundles of talent.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, congratulates Schalke's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer after his fine display in the game between the two teams last week.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, congratulates Schalke's goalkeeper Manuel Neuer after his fine display in the game between the two teams last week.

Manuel Neuer is under scrutiny tonight at Old Trafford. It is ever the case for a visiting goalkeeper at the so-called Theatre of Dreams on a big European night, but the looks cast in the direction of the young Schalke 04 goalkeeper will be both admiring and acquisitive from a large number of the 70,000 present.

Manchester United, who hold a daunting two goal advantage from the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against the German club, are looking for a new goalkeeper to replace Edwin van der Sar, who is to retire in June.

A large consensus among their fans has it that no keeper they have so far seen this season has been more impressive than the 25-year-old Neuer, who protected Schalke from a rout in Gelsenkirchen eight days ago.

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Even before Peter Schmeichel, the Danish keeper who played such a decisive part in making United English football's most successful club in the Premier League and Champions League era, had described Neuer as "probably the best goalkeeper in the world" after watching him defy United again and again in the first leg, longer-term followers of United had seen a bit of Schmeichel in Neuer.

It is not just the well-built frame and the blond hair. It is something in the technique, too.

Neuer is a mobile and aggressive goalkeeper, quick off his line and pugnacious in the kinds of one-on-one duels United's strikers obliged him frequently to take on in the first 90 minutes of the tie.

His manoeuvres in those confrontations recalled Schmeichel's "star-shape", the technique the Dane sometimes used to claim as his own patent, a wide spread not only of outstretched arms, but also of the legs, minimising the sight of the target available to an advancing opponent.

Schmeichel used to tell how a background playing handball, a popular sport in northern Europe, had honed his skills in that aspect of goalkeeping.

Likewise Neuer, who recently told the German newspaper Bild-Zeiting: "I have always been a big handball fan, and I watched a lot of the last handball World Cup. You do learn things as a goalkeeper from that sport."

Raul, the former Real Madrid striker who joined Schalke last summer, suggests another point of comparison for Neuer: Iker Casillas, the Real and Spain goalkeeper.

"I didn't know too much about him before I came here," said Raul, "but the saves he makes in training are incredible.

"He also has a strong and accurate throw. He may even turn out to be more complete than Casillas as a goalkeeper."

Neuer grew up close to Gelsenkirchen, a Schalke supporter whose idol was Jens Lehmann, the former Schalke and Germany keeper whose long career has lately been reactivated by Arsenal.

As a teenager he won caps at age-group level for Germany but his career was threatened six years ago when he broke a thumb in two places in training.

The digit still carries a long scar and the recovery cost him four months out of action.

The Champions League run has helped raise Neuer's global profile, and indeed his value in the transfer market.

After his first showing against United, Schalke's directors were eagerly offsetting the disappointment of a 2-0 defeat with praise for the goalkeeper.

"He showed against United how much he is worth," Clemens Tonnies, the Schalke president, said.

Horst Heldt, the general manager, added: "If someone offered €100 million (Dh530m) for him, we'd obviously have to think about it."

This was strategic, and a little disingenuous.

Neuer has his mind set on a move this summer and every indication is that it will be to Bayern Munich, with whom he has been in fruitful talks, in the knowledge his contract with Schalke expires in 2012.

Any United interest in Neuer stalls at that fact. But a sale price between Schalke and Bayern is not yet agreed. Heldt and Tonnies remain keen to push it upwards of the €20m Bayern want to pay.

Neuer will almost certainly begin next season in Munich, and firmly installed as No 1 in the German national team.

Even 12 months ago, that was a scenario he might have aspired to, but could not be certain of.

After the tragic death of Robert Enke, the former Hannover goalkeeper who committed suicide in late 2009, Joachim Loew, the German head coach, appeared to have settled on Rene Adler, the 26-year-old Bayer Leverkusen custodian, as his first choice for last summer's World Cup.

Adler then suffered a rib injury in the immediate lead-up to the tournament and was ruled out of travelling to South Africa. Neuer would thus be promoted.

He helped steer Germany to the semi-finals, has now been instrumental in guiding Schalke to an unlikely place in the last four of European club football's top competition and, when he looks at the scar on his thumb, cannot help thinking how fortune has smiled on him.

The match-up

Key Battle

Dimitar Berbatov v Christophe Metzelder

None of Schalke’s outfield players came out with any credit from the first leg and they will want to put that right. The German side need a mammoth defensive effort to turn things around, led by their international centre-back Metzelder, below. Berbatov, United’s top scorer, should start and he knows German football well, having spent five years with Bayer Leverkusen.

Tactics

Do United stick or twist? One goal and the tie is effectively dead, but if they concede then things start to get nervy. On the first leg showing, they have too much class for Schalke. If Schalke need inspiration for the tough task ahead – they need three goals to win in normal time – they should be watching the video of their 5-2 win at Inter Milan in the quarter-final again and again and again.

Previous meetings
Last week’s 2-0 win for United was the first time these side’s have met

Probable line-ups

Man Utd (4-4-2) Van der Sar; Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand, Evra; Scholes, Carrick, Park, Valencia; Owen, Berbatov
Schalke (4-3-3) Neuer; Sarpei, Papadopoulos, Metzelder, Uchida; Matip, Baumjohann, Jurado; Farfan, Raul, Edu

Facts

• United need one more goal for their 300th in the Champions League.
• Schalke have played four matches in England, losing three and drawing one.

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