- Metatarsal fractures have consigned Neuer to the sidelines
- Played his last Bayern game in September 2017, most recent international in November 2016
- Now in a race against time to be fit for Russia
Manuel Neuer established himself as the embodiment of the modern goalkeeper at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. While he was by no means the first shot stopper capable of creating something with the ball at his feet and his exceptional skill was already beyond doubt to football fans across Germany, his courageous displays in South America four years ago captivated audiences around the world. He was ultimately rewarded with the World Cup Trophy and the adidas Golden Glove as the tournament’s best goalkeeper.
Although it may have escaped the notice of some fans around the globe, many in Germany have been preoccupied by the fact that Neuer has been injured for more than a year with two successive metatarsal fractures. The most recent of his four appearances this season was in mid-September, while he was last capped for his country in November 2016.
The road to recovery is proving to be a difficult one. "It’s really important that nothing happens to my foot now, otherwise it could put my career at risk," he said back in March, before providing a further update in April: "There are still plenty of question marks. I have to be happy with my performance and be honest with myself. Can I hold my own again after such a long absence?"
The 32-year-old has since returned to training. Although there was initially speculation that he would be fit enough to return for Bayern Munich’s penultimate or last Bundesliga match, such estimates proved to be premature. The latest news from the German champions is positive ahead of the DFB Cup final against Eintracht Frankfurt in Berlin on Saturday, with the club confirming on Friday that Neuer will be included in the matchday squad.
But what does all this mean for his place in the national team at Russia 2018? Although national coach Joachim Low included his captain Neuer as one of four goalkeepers when announcing his provisional squad on Tuesday, he made it clear that he would only take three of them to this summer’s World Cup finals.
"Manuel and I know the responsibility we have," Low said. "He has already played at four major tournaments and knows what a goalkeeper needs. We will give him time and hope he will be able to come."
There is a Plan B, of course, with Marc-Andre ter Stegen now Germany’s clear number two goalkeeper behind Neuer after an impressive FIFA Confederations Cup last summer. There are certainly worse backup plans than having Barcelona’s 26-year-old starting custodian ready to step into the breach, especially as Ter Stegen shares much of Neuer’s attacking mindset and is currently one of the world’s best goalkeepers in his own right.
Despite this, Low’s assertion on Tuesday that "nobody can go to a tournament like this without game time" came as something of a surprise. Will a cup final and/or the international friendly against Austria on 2 June be enough game time for a World Cup, or is the national coach gently preparing the country for the news that Neuer will not make the plane?
"We’re being very frank with each other," Low said. "[After the South Tyrol training camp] we’ll talk openly and honestly about whether he can play at the World Cup or not, and make a final decision on 4 June."