Center of attention: all eyes on Manuel Neuer.
With the announcement of his 19 million euro transfer to record champions Bayern München, Manuel Neuer—currently the undisputed No.1 of Germany's national team—has become the darling of the international sports media.
Many already see the 25-year-old native of Gelsenkirchen as the best goaltender in the world.
Yet with all eyes now following his every move, it is easy to forget that the Bundesliga is so crowded with talent at this position that it could make football fans in other leagues—especially those of EPL-clubs—want to cry out loud.
Germany has always been home to an incredible number of great goalkeepers.
Toni Turek, Hans Tilkowski, Sepp Maier, Harald "Toni" Schuhmacher, Bodo Illgner, Andreas Köpke and Oliver Kahn are just a few famous names out of the rich tradition of German No. 1's who can be considered among the all-time best of their trade.
And every season brings new faces to this decisive position, with 2010-2011 making no exception.
Some would deserve to be ranked higher on this list, but aren't—either because they sustained injuries, or simply because they couldn't see more playing time due to being on a team with more established keepers.
Others, such as Frank Rost, Oka Nikolov or Jörg Butt (who might be ending their careers), were not considered in this show because I wanted to focus on players who seem promising for the future or who will be back with new teams.
Here's a look at the best active German keepers in the Bundesliga last season.
A Comeback in Berlin? Thomas Kraft joins Hertha BSC.
Here are some of the less-known goaltenders that, nonetheless, made a splash last season.
I am sure you'll be hearing about them more and more often, when the new season kicks off.
21. Lars Unnerstall, Schalke 04, 21 years old, 1,98m
Weighing in at 100 kg, Lars Unnerstall is a true giant and possibly the proto-type of the new generation of keepers: tall, intimidating and with sensational reflexes.
Starting the season as third-string keeper at Schalke 04 behind Manuel Neuer and veteran Mathias Schober, he is learning from the best—and is being prepared to become a star himself.
20. Thomas Kraft, Hertha BSC Berlin, 22 years old, 1,87m
Groomed at FC Bayern München to take over the goalie position after veteran Jörg Butt retired, Kraft was prematurely "thrown to the sharks" by Louis van Gaal in a possibly self-indulgent attempt to counter Bayern management's flirt with Manuel Neuer. The tactic? By mobilizing Bayern fans, who ridiculously responded, holding up signs demanding, "Koan Neuer" (no new keeper).
Crushed by such exaggerated expectations, it was only a matter of time before Thomas Kraft crumbled.
Now, Kraft will try to restart his bruised career with Hertha BSC. He has all the talent to succeed.
19. Andreas Luthe, VfL Bochum, 24 years old, 1,94m
A mere back-up to an experienced Philipp Heerwagen (30 years old) at the start of the season, head coach Friedhelm Funkel installed Luthe as his No. 1 to lead Bochum back to the Bundesliga, a goal they just barely missed.
He would be my choice for best second division keeper, were it not for:
18. Max Grün, SpVgg Greuther Fürth, 24 years old, 1,90m
Trained by legend Sepp Maier at Bayern München II, Grün was sent to the Spielvereinigung to gather competitive experience in the second division.
He did, in the process becoming "Mr. Unbeatable" for Henry Kissinger's favorite club.
Unfortunately, a serious injury put him out of action for the second half of the season, but he will be back to prove that he rates among the finest goalie talents in Germany.
17. Thomas Kessler, FC St. Pauli, 25 years old, 1,95m
Born and trained in Köln, the city that brought us Germany-legend Toni Schuhmacher, Kessler came to St. Pauli as the third-string keeper, but head coach Holger Stanislawski eventually gave him the starting job.
Though excellent at his position, Kessler couldn't save the Hamburg club all by himself.
Now he is being linked to a move to Eintracht Frankfurt.
16. Christian Wetklo, 1. FSV Mainz 05, 31 years old, 1,90m
15. Heinz Müller, 1. FSV Mainz 05, 33 years old, 1,96m
Mainz 05 was one of the Bundesliga surprise teams in 2010-2011, due to the impact its youngsters had in attack.
The so-called "Boy Group" of Andre Schürrle, Lewis Holtby and Adam Szalai netted goal after goal, leading the Carneval Club to first place in the table.
But at the keeper position, head coach Thomas Tuchel trusted in experience.
Heinz Müller, brought in from FC Barnsley, was the late-blooming sensation of the previous season, proving almost unbeatable and being voted among the three best goalkeepers in the league.
But after he fell to injury, his back-up, Christian Wetklo, stepped up and showed that he was almost as reliable.
Now Tuchel has two basically interchangeable keepers to fall back on. Tough choices loom.
14. Tobias Sippel, 1. FC Kaiserslautern, 23 years old, 1,80m
Standing at a mere 1,80m, Tobias Sippel is rather short for a Class-A goaltender, but he makes up for his lack of height with his amazing, panther-like leaping ability.
Trained in Kaiserslautern by the superb, yet always underrated Gerri Ehrmann, who has brought out many leading German keepers, Sippel became the standout talent at his position and anchored the champion German U-21 team of Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels and Markus Marin.
In the Bundesliga, his performances were also incredible, so his stellar career seemed well assured. It came as no surprise, then, that his contract was quickly prolonged for another three years during the season.
But after he suddenly fell ill, Kaiserslautern discovered that his replacement was also impeccable.
To his utter bewilderment, Sippel found himself benched—and has yet to reclaim his starting role.
13. Marc-André ter Stegen, Borussia Mönchengladbach, 19 years old, 1,85m
When your club boasts Belgium international Logan Bailly and veteran Christofer Heimeroth, you can't expect too much playing time as an 18-year-old.
But as Gladbach crashed to the bottom of the table, Lucien Favre (the Swiss brought in to save the traditional powerhouse) took a gamble on ter Stegen—to nobody's regret, as the "Colts" went from defensive laughing stock to unsurmountable wall.
Keeping his goal clean in four of seven matches, Marc-André ter Stegen became the uncontested starter.
Commentators are excited, comparing him to none other than "the Titan," Oliver Kahn.
I'd rate this teenage sensation higher, but I'll give him some more games before I do.
12. Sven Ulreich, VfB Stuttgart, 22 years old, 1,92m
The native Swabian was groomed to take over at No. 1 for Stuttgart, but was relegated to the bench when Jens Lehmann came back to play in Germany in 2008.
With Lehmann gone, Ulreich started as keeper this season and showed his many critics that he deserves the starting role.
Thanks to his great saves, Stuttgart avoided sliding deeper in the table.
Paradoxically, Stuttgart's decimated defensive line gave him an unexpected chance to show how good he actually is.
Count on him to get even better as the VfB finds itself back to usual form next season.
Another member of the profligate "Class of '88," Ralf Fährmann stands at an impressive 1,94m and weighs in at 89 kg.
Picked out of Preussen Münster after initially starting his career at Michael Ballack's home club, Chemnitzer FC, the young Saxon native was trained at prestigious Schalke 04 from 2003 until 2009, playing in Schalke's second team behind Manuel Neuer.
Thanks to the experience of Oliver Reck and Mathias Schober, he has acquired an instinct for great positioning to accommodate his impressive reflexes on the line.
And, in accordance with Schalke's trademark education, he has developed good distribution skills, making him a technically well-prepared all-round keeper.
But playing behind Neuer naturally limited his opportunities in Gelsenkirchen, so Schalke was quick to move him to Eintracht Frankfurt at the start of the season, where he was expected to take over from Macedonian international Oka Nikolov (38 years old).
But the veteran goalkeeper and fan favorite defended his position under Michael Skibbe until injury opened the way for Fährmann.
Unfortunately, Eintracht's usually rock-solid defense was already crumbling when he gained the trainer's confidence.
As Christof Daum took over the sinking club, Fährmann showed why he has always been considered one of Germany's leading young goaltenders, ultimately keeping Frankfurt's hopes of staying in the Bundesliga alive until a half-hour before the season ended.
In a dramatic season closer at champions Borussia Dortmund, he managed to stop two penalty kicks and fend off three more "unholdable" shots—all to no avail, as the Bundesliga founding member suffered a 1:3 loss, forcing Eintracht into the second division.
But manager Horst Heldt took notice; immediately after Neuer was sold off to Bayern, he brought back Ralf Fährmann, who should finally cement his place between Schalke's goalposts.
In the spring of 2010, things looked just fine for René Adler, now 26 years old and 1,90m tall, who grew up at VfB Sachsen Leipzig in former East Germany.
The keeper for Bayer 04 Leverkusen seemed all set to lead the German national team to the World Cup tournament in South Africa.
After a great season in the Bundesliga, Germany head coach Joachim Löw came to the conclusion that he was the right man between the goal-posts, where he had remained unbeaten in 10 of 31 matches.
His cat-like reactions and strong penalty-stoppage had put him ahead of his eternal nemesis, Manuel Neuer, and more experienced keeper, Tim Wiese, so it was made public that he would be the "National Eagles" new No. 1 after Jens Lehmann's resignation.
Three games before the end of the season, disaster struck.
A leg injury forced him to renounce his nomination, unexpectedly making way for Leverkusen legend, Jörg Butt, who was called up to his first big international tournament as No. 2 for Germany.
His terrific season with FC Bayern (where he had unseated Michael Rensing as Oliver Kahn's successor) was rewarded with his first full World Cup match.
As Adler underwent surgery, Manuel Neuer-the designated No. 2- took over as national keeper and began his ascent to international fame.
This year, Adler struggled to find his form, often looking shaky and error-prone.
With Leverkusen not qualified for Champions League competition, he failed to impress on an international level.
The more Neuer shone, the darker things got for Adler.
Still a keeper of undeniable talent, he thought of rekindling his career with a larger club; during the season, all signs pointed to England, where solid keepers are rare and Manchester United and Arsenal, especially, have an urgent need.
Yet amazingly, no offers seem to have come.
Which leaves René Adler to ponder his future at Leverkusen for the time being.
Still, I wouldn't count him out. Competition in Germany is so intense at this position, that it is totally possible we will see Adler back with the national team—not to mention in CL-competition next year.
New kid on the block: Kevin Trapp
The 20 year old, 1,89m tall, junior keeper, who joined 1. FCK from Mettlach in 2005, was the discovery of the second half of last season for the German "Red Devils."
Usually, when you are on a team with German U-21 starting goalie Tobias Sippel, you can't expect very much playing-time—especially with the latter putting in consistently reliable performances.
But when Sippel fell ill with a virus in March, Kevin Trapp stepped up—and so convincingly filled the position that head coach Marco Kurz had to stick with him.
Trapp's spectacular saves and dominance in one-on-one situations kept struggling Kaiserslautern in games that had had an evil tendency to slip away as a nervous and decimated defensive back-line allowed decisive goals out of standard situations in the waning minutes.
All that changed with Kevin Trapp, whose 10-centimeter height advantage translated into much better control of his opponent's corners and free-kicks.
By the end of the season, the traditional club from Rhineland-Palatia—home to 1954 Germany-legends Fritz and Ottmar Walter—had come clear of the relegation zone and finished a staggering seventh in the final table.
Which leaves Kaiserslautern in a similar situation as local rival FSV Mainz 05—to try and figure out which first-class keeper will start after the summer.
Sound and Flawless: Oliver Baumann
Oliver Baumann has always been considered a great goaltending talent. Accordingly, he has played on different German youth teams, but seeing the intense competition at this position within the "Class of '88," the 21-year-old, 1,87m tall, keeper always seemed to fall under the radar ahead of important international tournaments.
Even at SC Freiburg, where he has been under contract since 2002, Oliver Baumann played second-fiddle to starting Frenchman, Simon Pouplin, with only sporadic starts to show for all of his undeniable talent.
But the 2010-2011 season finally saw his coming of age for the Breisgau club under head coach Robin Dutt.
Baumann, like most keepers in the Bundesliga, has great reflexes on the line, but he impressed many fans with his cool-headed, unexcited mastery of the penalty box—a feature that has led to comparisons with the young Edwin van der Sar.
That might be a bit far-fetched, but expect Oliver Baumann to shine brighter still, as he gains the confidence and routine that come with more playing time.
Virtually unknown when he came to Hannover from Manchester United, Ron-Robert Zieler was expected to gather a little Bundesliga experience backing up Florian Fromlowitz, the regular starter who joined the club from 1.FC Kaisersautern and took over the position left vacant by former German international, Robert Enke.
Fromlowitz—another outstanding goalie from Gerri Ehrmann's successful Kaiserslautern school—seemed assured of his starting role after his basically solid performances at the end of the difficult 2009-2010 season, which saw Hannover fighting to stay in Germany's elite league.
Many observers were almost shocked when new head coach Mirko Slomka unceremoniously gave the job to Ron-Robert Zieler during the season.
Through his intense competitiveness and leadership qualities, he has impressed the '96-fans ever since. He was prominently responsible for Hannover's well-organized defensive play, which helped the club from Lower Saxony finish an amazing and totally unexpected fourth place—and which also qualified the eternal lower-table side for next year's Euro-League competition.
In the meantime, Fromlowitz has quietly departed to ambitious second division club MSV Duisburg, a sign that Ron-Robert Zieler is now firmly installed between the posts.
I am quite confident that he is at the start of a magnificent career—one which might just lead to a little head-scratching on behalf of his former club, Manchester United.
Is it possible that Edwin van der Sar's successor was on the roster all along, but for some reason went undetected?
Time will tell.
A man for special moments: Tim Wiese
Werder Bremen had one of the worst seasons it has experienced in recent history.
Instead of charging into the upper echelons of the Bundesliga, 2010-2011 saw the venerable Hanseatic side dropping to the abyss of possible demotion after key players went down with enduring injuries.
So it may come as a surprise that I have their veteran goalie, Tim Wiese—29 years old and standing at 1,93m—still in sixth place on this ranking.
But the major reason for this decision lies in the question of what would have happened to Werder, if Tim Wiese had not been there.
With Naldo and Boenisch lost all season, and Prödl and Mertesacker only playing occasionally, the once impressive Werder back-line proved so porous that only Wiese's gravity-defying, neck-breaking saves spared the club from total annihilation—in almost every game.
Often ridiculed in Germany for his choice of pink jerseys, well-greased hair-do and impeccable sun-studio tans, "Flying Tim" was almost the only defensive resistance the Hanseats could muster, virtually destroying the self-confidence of accomplished goal predators like Theofanis Gekas, Stefan Kiessling or Mario Gomez in the process.
The flamboyant German international might actually have had one of his better seasons since joining Werder from, yes, 1. FC Kaiserslautern in 2005, as he controlled his reputed penchant for showmanship to concentrate on his excellent goaltending skills—skills which remain highly appreciated by German national team manager Joachim Löw, who has stubbornly refused to drop Wiese from his roster, despite all the great alternatives the Bundesliga offers.
The Polish born 32-year-old has had ups and downs in his career.
Formed in Hannover, and then maturing at VfB Lübeck for three years, Raphael Schäfer (height: 1,90m) became a fixture for 1.FC Nürnberg from 2001 to 2007.
After a stellar 2006-2007 season, he transferred to VfB Stuttgart among much media-hype.
But he somehow couldn't live up to the great expectations and eventually saw his position taken away, first by substitute Sven Ulreich, before he was then later definitely benched in favor of returning Jens Lehmann.
Fortunately, his next move brought him "back home" to Nürnberg, where he has found his unspectacular, yet highly efficient and consistent good form.
There is reason enough to honor this reliable goal-keeper for his leadership to the young 1.FC Nürnberg side, which had a vastly improved season. After years of elevator existence, they are again becoming a permanent fixture in the Bundesliga and Raphael Schäfer is one important reason.
The 30-year-old Tom Starke had an impressive season for Hoffenheim, anchoring the young club in a season that saw them lose key players Carlos Edouardo and Luis Gustavo, in addition to the head coach responsible for the small club's rise to Bundesliga prominence, Ralf Rangnick.
At 1,94m and 80 kg, Starke is a very athletic keeper with good reach who brings the necessary experience to his job .
Starting his career at Dynamo Dresden (1989- 1999), Starke was brought in to Bayer 04 Leverkusen, where he matured from 1999-2003, but eventually had to take a backseat to René Adler.
Looking for playing time, he moved to MSV Duisburg in 2007, quickly becoming the most impressive goalkeeper in the second division.
This caught Hoffenheim's attention, who were looking for a strong keeper after the controversial tenure of former German international Timo Hildebrand.
Roman Weidenfeller, 30 years old and 1,90m tall, might be the most consistently under-appreciated Bundesliga keeper of the last decade.
Evolving at 1.FC Kaiserslautern from 1996 to 2002, he eventually found his way to Borussia Dortmund, where he has been a reliable anchor for the past eight years.
Unfortunately for him, Borussia struggled most of the time during this period, which explains why his solid play always tended to go unnoticed with the then-mediocre team.
Yet, with the arrival of head coach Jürgen Klopp, club fortunes have changed and Weidenfeller has developed into a responsible veteran, as equally important to the club for his excellent goalkeeping as for his leadership role on the young team.
Winning the German championship last season has finally handed Roman Weidenfeller the recognition he has so long deserved.
Many in Germany actually see Weidenfeller ranked second in this season's power ranking, but I was impressed by another standout keeper who showed sensational performances, so—although it's a very close call—I'll keep him at third.
In my eyes, Michael Rensing had the most remarkable turnaround season of any Bundesliga keeper last year.
Quietly evolving at FC Bayern München—where he was patiently groomed to take over the position "Titan" Oliver Kahn had so impressively filled for almost a decade—Michael Rensing finally received his long awaited, designated starter chance.
But after an error-prone season with the record champions, he was deemed "too light" for the prestigious post, and his promising career suddenly lay in shambles.
In a typically German demonstration of how a potential star is lustfully destroyed, the national sports media magnified every mishap he committed—every ball he sent out of bounds—viciously portraying the junior hopeful as a total failure, too stubborn to concede his complete ineptitude and just silently depart to some other quiet profession.
So nauseating became the tabloid headlines, that the public soon came to view him as a "persona non-grata," selfishly clinging to a well-payed contract he had unjustifiably, yet somehow deceptively, been awarded—even though it supposedly was evident (to anyone with eyes that could see) that he might be better suited to tending goats than the all-important goalposts.
Bowing to the intense pressure, management eventually benched Rensing in favor of veteran Jörg Butt, who was experienced and cold-blooded enough to withstand the hype surrounding "FC Bollywood."
Butt had an outstanding season. And Michael Rensing was exiled in disgrace.
As a promising youth-player, the 1,86m keeper from Bavaria had been seen as one of the three biggest talents of his class.
Along with Manuel Neuer and Rene Adler, Michael Rensing regularly played on Germany's junior selections, seriously competing for a career as future national men's-team keeper.
By the start of this season, he couldn't even land a job with a second division club.
Until the winter break. When Faryd Mondragon, the reliable 39-year-old Colombian keeper largely responsible for getting 1. FC Köln back on the Bundesliga stage, ended his honorable career.
Miro Varvodic, the substitute from Croatia, faltered and—to the surprise of many—Michael Rensing was brought in as the starting No. 1.
His heroics and the passion he instilled to a moribund side ultimately kept Köln in the league.
He has just been named the best Bundesliga keeper of the half-season by Kicker Sports Magazine, which is reason enough for me to tip my hat in recognition of his "comeback of the year."
At the top of the list is...Manuel Neuer!
No surprise here, this one is a true no-brainer.
At 25 years of age, Manuel Neuer is already the undisputed keeper of the German national team.
He's coming off a stellar season with his boyhood club at Schalke 04, where he has played in different youth and second teams since 1991, before taking over the No. 1 slot in 2008.
Neuers' presence last season was probably worth about 12 points out of Schalke's meager 40-point total tally.
In fact, the previous year's second place team—coached by the champion builder, Felix Magath, along with the added talent of Jurado, Huntelaar and Real Madrid-legend, Raúl—would have been a serious candidate for relegation without him.
With his impressive frame of 1,93m, built out of 90 kg of pure muscle, the Gelsenkirchen-native (who has spent his entire career with the coal-miners' "Royal Blue") became synonymous for the descriptive, "intimidating keeper."
His world-class reactions and his pin-point distribution are exemplary.
And in all probability he will only get better in the coming years.
Such was the enthusiasm of Bayern München to immediately sign the giant talent that the "Kaiser" himself, Franz Beckenbauer, was caught on record calmly explaining to Bild, "This is a goalkeeper who saves 20 unstoppable shots a year. You must do everything to get him immediately. I would approve of any sum if I was still chairman of the board. You should even pay €50m for Neuer, if necessary."
Though it certainly didn't amuse the other deciders within the club, I can understand Beckenbauer's position.
Manuel Neuer really has the potential to become the world's best keeper, which would automatically make him Germany's best individual player at any position, and thus, the best player out of his entire generation.
As a goalkeeper, his career could continue for another 12 years, so Manuel Neuer could become even more recognizable than Oliver Kahn—not only to German fans, but also to Asian and Arabian spectators.
That star-power appeal is of immense significance to FC Bayern München, as the club readies its attack on the Spanish Liga and English Premier League giants—also in terms of marketing revenue and brand recognition on football's global market.
So, of course, invest they did—a sum estimated to be around 18 million euros, but possibly even more on top, if Manuel Neuer lives up to these immense expectations.
Chances are, he will.