Germany's main man: keeper Manuel Neuer. Photo: AFP
There was a moment during Germany's semi-final victory against Brazil that says everything you need to know about Manuel Neuer. His teammates had been dishing out the most brutal beating imaginable to the hosts until, in the 90th minute, Oscar responded with one glancing and utterly irrelevant consolation blow. So how did Neuer respond?
Simple. He erupted in rage. With the world watching, his reaction was of utter fury, both with himself and the German team for having their clean sheet stained. "Neuer wears his heart on his sleeve," says David Coles, the former goalkeeping coach to both David James and Robert Green.
"You could see the anger and the disgust even though the score was 7-0. It was as if it was unbelievable to him that Brazil should have the audacity to score. It was like he was saying: 'How dare you insult me by scoring. You had no right. This is my goal.' He has this arrogance to think he shouldn't let in goals. He acts as if it's personal for him. The best goalkeepers live in a bubble of self-belief and he is one of the best, if not the best right now."
Fifa's judges certainly seem to agree, naming Neuer along with Argentina's Sergio Romero and Costa Rica's Keylor Navas as the top three goalkeepers of the World Cup. While all eyes at the Maracana will inevitably focus on the likes of Lionel Messi, Thomas Mueller, Gonzalo Higuain and Toni Kroos, the match could quite conceivably be decided by Romero or Neuer.
Romero, after all, was Argentina's hero in the penalty shoot-out victory against Holland on Wednesday, while Neuer has also been performing with his usual air of all-round invincibility in Brazil.
Andreas Kopke, the Germany goalkeeping coach, likes to repeatedly refer to Neuer's Nervenstarke. The precise translation is 'nerves of steel' and it is this depth in mental reserves, according to Kopke, that has made Neuer the outstanding goalkeeper of this generation. "If something goes wrong for him during the game, he can put it to one side immediately," says Kopke.
It is a quality, says Neuer, that he learnt while playing for Schalke in the Bundesliga. "The goalkeeper always starts again at nil, even when you're 2-0 down," he explains. "It always starts again at scratch. It's a completely mental thing, and I keep reminding myself of it during matches." Remaining alert is especially important for Neuer while playing for Germany or Bayern Munich, arguably the best club and international teams in the world. What is especially interesting, though, is how Neuer has tried to evolve so that he can contribute as a makeshift sweeper even when his team-mates are dominant. Against Algeria, for example, Neuer made an extraordinary 21 touches outside of his own area.
"He's exactly the kind of goalkeeper we want in our team," says Kopke. "He's a great goalkeeper, but he can also participate in build-up play."
What was interesting in the match with France - and will presumably also be evident against Argentina today - was how Neuer seemed more comfortable staying on his line.
It suggested that he could happily adapt to a more passive game plan.
Coles can still remember watching Neuer in person at the Broadwood Stadium in Glasgow in 2007 when he was appearing for the Germany under-21 team against Scotland. "I was already aware of him and he stood out," he says. "For his age, he was a giant. He has a fantastic presence and can make the goal look small very, very quickly."
Neuer, of course, is the continuation of an impressive heritage of German goalkeepers that also includes Sepp Maier, Harald Schumacher, Jens Lehmann and Oliver Kahn. "The only negative thing you could say about Neuer is that he is not the most technically gifted," says Coles. "But he is still incredibly effective - he is happy to make the unorthodox save with part of his arm or leg.
"His distribution is outstanding and he's competent with his feet. He is a goalkeeper who simplifies rather than complicates situations. He doesn't take chances - if he wants to punch the ball, he will send it 50 yards from goal rather than two."
In Romero, Argentina also have a goalkeeper at the very peak of his powers. Romero has already described the semi-final penalty shoot-out win against Holland as the greatest moment of his career and has been studying the various penalty-taking characteristics of Joachim Loew's team.
Germany, though, will still start as clear favourites. The immediate focus for both sides will be how to nullify the rare talents of Messi, Higuain, Mueller and Kroos. The ultimate difference, though, could yet be made by the respective goalkeepers. And, as is the case in almost every area of the pitch, it should be advantage Germany in the Maracana.
The Telegraph, London