Out of Neuer’s shadow, Ulreich eager to shine in Europe

Sven Ulreich has proved an able replacement for Manuel Neuer at Bayern Munich this season
AFP

Berlin (AFP) – With Manuel Neuer still sidelined, Sven Ulreich is relishing his time in the spotlight as Bayern Munich’s goalkeeper.

The 29-year-old, who was suddenly elevated to the club’s first-choice role in September when World Cup winner Neuer fractured his foot in training, will be between the posts against Sevilla at Munich’s sold-out Allianz Arena in the Champions League.

Bayern hold a 2-1 advantage from the first leg and are bidding to reach the last four for the seventh time in nine seasons.

While the likes of Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski are accustomed to playing in the knockout stages of European competition, it is a novelty for Ulreich. 

“Seville was a super experience, it was a good match. I was really happy to be able to play a quarter-final of the Champions League,” he said.

– Focus on Europe –

With Ulreich in goal, Bayern wrapped up the Bundesliga title last Saturday with a 4-1 win at Augsburg and their focus is now firmly on Europe.

However for Ulreich, his current situation was almost unimaginable before Neuer succumbed to injury early in the season.

Ulreich, who started his career at his home town club Stuttgart, was facing another campaign as Neuer’s understudy until the Germany star again fractured a bone in the foot he originally injured last April.

Bayern head coach Jupp Heynckes, who replaced Carlo Ancelotti as head coach at the start of October, says Ulreich has developed dramatically in that time. 

“Sven Ulreich was a totally insecure goalkeeper when I came in – with little self-esteem and no recognition,” said Heynckes in Tuesday’s press conference.

“That has changed immensely over time.

“He has not only become one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, but has earned recognition from the media and fans.

“He has won us several games and, of course, it helped that I said he was my Number One.

“That trust relationship is very important for him.” 

Ulreich joined Bayern in 2015 from Stuttgart and 24 of his 47 Bundesliga appearances for the Bavarians have come this season, as a result of Neuer’s absence.

He was thrust into the starting side as Bayern’s only non-international player, but Ulreich has seized his chance with consistent performances to help fill the void left by Neuer. 

“The expectations were enormous, if I had let a few in, people would have quickly said ‘Manu would have kept that out!’” Ulreich told Kicker magazine.

“People are used to seeing world class in that position and, of course, you want to match that.

“It used to bother me, now I’ve found a way to not let myself be affected by all that – the important thing is the coach’s opinion.

“You grow when faced with a challenge and in the meantime, fans and the club’s senior figures have seen that I also have my qualities.”

– Germany call-up? –

His 10 clean sheets in 24 league games this season have also attracted the attention of Germany head coach Loew.

“He is in our field of vision,” said Loew last month when asked if Ulreich could be a surprise call-up for the World Cup in Russia this summer.

It would make sense given that Ulreich works on a daily basis at Bayern with Germany defenders Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Niklas Suele and Joshua Kimmich.

At club level, Neuer’s expected return in the next few weeks will force Ulreich, who is under contract at Bayern until 2021, back into a reserve role, but there is no tension between the pair.

“We have a great relationship,” said Ulreich.

“He often sends me an SMS before the matches, we talk a lot. 

“If he is fit, he is the one who plays, so it’s not really a competitive situation.”

But Ulreich concedes that a fit Neuer would mean disappointment for him.

“It’s going to be difficult to go back on the bench,” he admitted.

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