Some time from now, when people will look back at the first Clasico of this season, the one that basically sealed the deal on the championship race in La Liga, they may see it as a one-sided affair. It might makes sense considering the result, Barcelona winning 3:0 at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu, but it could have looked a lot different, if it weren’t for one man who is somewhat underestimated.
Real Madrid had five shots on target coming from Ronaldo, Ramos, and Bale, all of them were saved by 25-year-old Marc Andre Ter Stegen. This was just one great showing in a fantastic season by the German keeper. Barcelona has so far conceded only 7 goals in the 17 league matches played, far less than in any of the previous seasons at this stage. Same story in the Champions League, where Ter Stegen conceded just one goal in six games so far.
Being a goalkeeper is quite an ungrateful job. You are many times remembered for your mistakes rather than for your saves, and when you play for a club like Barcelona it is even more so. Ask any kid who are the heroes and they will likely say Messi, Iniesta, maybe Suarez, just a few avid supporters may name Ter Stegen. The club however is recognizing his crucial role this season. Last November the official Barcelona English Twitter page posted a picture of Messi and Ter Stegen with the tweet “The two biggest reasons we are where we are right now.”
The keeper is used to being recognized by the club and not by the fans and the analysts. Most people thought he was making a mistake when he joined Barcelona from Borussia Monchengladbach in the summer of 2014, right alongside Claudio Bravo who came from Real Sociedad and following a successful World Cup campaign with the Chilean national team. It was clear that Bravo will be the starting keeper in the league due to his eight years of experience at Sociedad. Ter Stegen was the first choice keeper for the Champions League and the King’s Cup, and Barcelona went on to win both tournaments as part of a treble season.
The same method was used the following season, and the breakthrough only came in the summer of 2016, when Bravo left for Manchester City. It was then that Ter Stegen was given the official No.1 keeper post. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but Ter Stegen improved as the season progressed. His best game last season was, again, the Clasico. He had 12 saves in the 3:2 win over Real Madrid last April, a win which kept Barcelona in the race for the title which, eventually, Real Madrid won.
This season started where the previous one ended, his form is great and Barcelona is having a record season as far as their defense is concerned.
Now comes the question regarding the national team.
Ter Stegen is the second choice for German national team manager Joachim Low, behind clear first choice Manuel Neuer. The Bayern Munich keeper was, of course, part of the winning team in 2014 and has been the leading goalkeeper for the “Die Mannschaft” for the past eight years. Now that he is the captain of both Bayern Munich and the national team, his place is guaranteed as Germany’s No. 1 keeper as long as he is fit. The question ahead of the upcoming World Cup is how fit is he?
Neuer suffered a left foot fracture last April during a Champions League match against Real Madrid. He took the summer to recuperate and returned for Bayern’s second league match of the season, but following that game the club ruled him out until the end of the year after another fracture in the same foot. He is set to return soon, maybe after the winter break, but after sitting out almost an entire year, his form is yet to be seen.
During his absence, Ter Stegen took his place on the national team. He started in four of the five matches that Germany played in the Confederations Cup. For his performance in the final against Chile, which Germany won 1:0, he was awarded Man of the Match. He was also the starting choice in four of the five World Cup qualifying matches during Neuer’s absence.
Despite all that, Ter Stegen knows better than anybody that he will most likely return to the bench come June. Something drastic would have to happen for Neuer to sit out the World Cup. On the other hand, he also knows that good things may come to those who wait, especially if they are as talented as he is. Maybe the fortunes that played out in Barcelona will once again play out on Germany.