The prospect of a first German domestic championship since 1958 has generated an air of palpable excitement at Schalke 04. The Royal Blues lead the Bundesliga standings by six points from Werder Bremen following a 2-0 home victory over Hertha Berlin last weekend.

While fans and experts alike enthuse over  resurgent striker Kevin Kuranyi , Brazil playmaker Lincoln's defence-splitting passes and captain Marcelo Bordon's rugged defensive strength, another crucial contributor to the Gelsenkirchen side's current success has been the figure standing between the sticks.

Keeper Manuel Neuer is a mere 20 years old but has been in scintillating form so far this term, underpinning high-flying Schalke's bid for the German title. The team from the west of Germany have enjoyed a glorious run since November 2006, when coach Mirko Slomka sprang a monumental surprise in the run-up to a crunch home clash against Bayern Munich, dropping veteran first-choice keeper  Frank Rost  and installing Neuer in his place. The youngster had just a couple of Bundesliga outings under his belt prior to that point.

The Royal Blues drew 2-2 with the champions, the first match in a storming undefeated run that has yielded 32 of a possible 36 points since then. Neuer has picked the ball from the back of his net on just eight occasions and has kept the same number of clean sheets, including the victory over Hertha and the previous week's  2-0 away triumph in the top-of-the-table clash with Werder . Time and again, the Berlin and Bremen forwards faltered when faced with the agile goalkeeper. "He was world class," Slomka enthused afterwards. "He opened the way for us to win."

Stellar ascent
Neuer's dramatic emergence has confounded many an expert. The 1.92m youngster betrays no obvious signs of inexperience, exuding belief and fearlessness instead.

On being informed he was to make his Bundesliga debut as the injured Rost's stand-in against Alemannia Aachen on the second matchday, he remained characteristically unruffled. "You've got to be prepared to be thrown in at the deep end. I'm ready. I believe I can do it."

The coaching staff were rewarded in spades for their faith in the 20-year-old, leaving Schalke general manager Andreas Muller to describe the custodian as "an exceptional talent". Alongside lightning-quick reflexes and a commanding penalty-box presence, the new No1 is no slouch with the ball at his feet. "He's the kind of keeper who gets involved. When he trains as an outfield player, you hardly notice the difference," Slomka observes. Neuer has rapidly become a crowd favourite, helped by the fact he was born within a stone's throw of the stadium in the district of Buer, and has played for the club since the tender age of four.

Neuer appeared at every youth level for Schalke, before signing professional forms in 2005. Few would bet against him fulfilling his greatest dream before his current deal expires in 2010 - lining up as successor to former Royal Blue Jens Lehmann in the Germany nets. The young Neuer used to admire his predecessor from the north bank at Schalke. "I used to get there a long time before kick-off, because I wanted to watch Jens Lehmann warm up," Neuer recalls. "Lehmann has always been one of my role models." 

Lehmann's successor?
Many observers rate the Schalke newcomer as a promising candidate to succeed the current Germany keeper, who is likely to quit the international scene in summer 2008. Marcelo Bordon is among their number. "I'd like someone to show me a better keeper in Germany. Manuel is a fantastic goalkeeper. He should be called up for international duty," the club captain declared.

Neuer has been a regular for the Germany U-21s since making his debut in a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands on 15 August 2006. He admits to keeping one eye on the next big challenge. "I have to perform for the U-21s in the first instance. The senior team is definitely my dream, but I'm not thinking about it right now. You can't take on that job until you've played two or three years in the Bundesliga and performed on the international stage," the 20-year-old reflects.

For the time being, the newcomer and his team-mates are focusing on the Bundesliga title race, something Schalke have not won since 1958. "We can win the league, provided we maintain our current form. I don't believe our team is any worse than our rivals'. We're playing well and we're on a roll," the keeper remarks in typically self-assured fashion.

And when it comes to the German national team, his  role model Lehmann  was also obliged to wait patiently before realising his lifelong dream. Not that Neuer looks likely to bide his time in the shadows for long.