The Last Line
Writer and goalkeeping coach Ian Watson continues our new column 'The Last Line' by looking at the top 10 up-and-coming keepers across Europe. Each week we'll focus on a topic of debate between the posts as our fully paid-up member of the goalkeepers' union has his say.
By Ian Watson - Follow me on Twitter @ianwatson1
Last Updated: 16/11/12 1:04pm
Goalkeeping is not traditionally a young man's game but, across Europe, coaches appear more willing than ever before to give youth a chance as their last line of defence. As a result, a healthy stream of younger keepers are now coming through to challenge the more senior national number ones.
Here, we list the top 10 up-and-coming keepers across Europe.
Criteria: To qualify, keepers must be 25 or under and yet to establish themselves as their country's regular number one.
10 - Stefanos Kapino, 18, Panathinaikos/Greece
Kapino joined Panathinaikos at the age of 13 and just five years later, the 6'5" teenager is already a full international.
When, at 17, he became the youngest player ever to represent Greece, Kapino had scouts from across Europe on his trail. Arsenal, Reading and Fulham all dispatched representatives to Athens to watch the goalkeeper during his 12-match run in the first team at the end of last year.
Inter Milan were reportedly close to signing Kapino last summer, since when the youngster has been forced to play back-up for Orestis Karnezis for club and country. With Panathinaikos, though, in serious financial crisis, prized assests such as Kapino may have to be sold to ease their €30million debt.
9 - Bernd Leno, 20, Bayer Leverkusen/Germany
Leno became the second-most expensive goalkeeper in Bundesliga history only 13 games after his league debut for Bayer Leverkusen, who were convinced after just three months of a half-season loan to pay big money to Stuttgart, where Leno had come through the youth system but had yet to make a senior appearance.
Under-21 international Leno, like many young goalkeepers, is happier on his line than off it, but that did not deter Leverkusen from putting their faith in the youngster over Germany international Rene Adler, who has since prospered since last summer's switch to Hamburg.
Leverkusen replaced Adler with Michael Rensing but it was made clear to the former Bayern Munich and Cologne number one that he was being signed as a stand-in - a role he is currently playing as Leno recovers from elbow surgery.
8 - Fraser Forster, 24, Celtic/England.
The Spanish press labelled Forster as 'The Great Wall' after two stunning displays against Barcelona, both of which came after the Celtic goalkeeper had received his first England call-up.
International recognition and continental acclaim come at the end of an arduous path to the highest level for Forster, who saw his route to the Newcastle first team blocked by Tim Krul.
The Magpies Academy graduate never played in the first-team at Newcastle and, instead, spent long periods out on loan. Brief spells at Stockport and Bristol Rovers preceded a successful campaign at Norwich, before a two-season stint at Celtic resulted in the Geordie signing permanently at Parkhead this summer.
Forster displayed surprising agility in his breakout battles against Barca, denying Messi and co with the kind of reaction saves you might not expect from a man who stands at over 6'6" tall.
Forster is blessed with great height but appears to have all the other attributes required of a goalkeeper at the very highest level. If Forster looks to move on from SPL, which surely he will to further his England hopes, then Celtic can expect to make a very tidy profit on the £2million they paid earlier this year.
With Forster's former mentor, Shay Given, keen to play for Celtic before he retires, perhaps a return south of Hadrian's Wall for 'La Gran Muralla' could be on the cards as imminently as January, especially if the Bhoys blow up in their bid for a place in the Champions League knock-out stages.
7 - David De Gea, 22, Manchester United/Spain.
No goalkeeper divides opinion like De Gea. The 22-year-old has had to grow up quickly since he joined Manchester United to replace the great Edwin van der Sar and, though there are still some obvious flaws in his game, he possesses great agility and a passing range that would embarrass many midfielders.
Does he have the trust of Sir Alex Ferguson? The manager has benched his big-money buy twice in 2011, but Anders Lindegaard's injury problems have meant a reprieve for De Gea on both occasions. Sitting on two outs, a third strike for De Gea could mean Ferguson looks elsewhere.
But the Spaniard is still highly-regarded in his homeland, and a senior call-up cannot be far away. Iker Casillas is almost immovable in the number one spot and Victor Valdes is a competent understudy but Pepe Reina's struggles could see him drop down the pecking order, despite his status as chief cheerleader in the Spain camp.
It is almost certain that De Gea will become a top-class goalkeeper. Whether he achieves that status at United is a matter for debate.
6 - Ron-Robert Zieler, 23, Hannover 96/Germany
As a 21-year-old in 2010, Zieler was deemed not good enough for Manchester United. Two years later, he was heading to Euro 2012 with Germany.
As Sir Alex Ferguson says, Zieler has "come on leaps and bounds" since he returned to Germany after a five-year stint in England. He failed to get anywhere near the first team at Old Trafford but, just six months after Hannover took a chance on the former Germany youth international, he was playing regularly in the Bundesliga, earning himself a reputation as a composed and reliable young stopper.
Another half-year after his Hannover debut, he received his first Germany call-up in August 2011, with his full international debut following in November. His two appearances for Die Mannschaft have not gone as Zieler would have hoped: Ukraine put three past him within 17 minutes on his debut, though the keeper was absolved of any blame for any of them; while his second cap was brought to an abrupt end when he became the first Germany goalkeeper ever to receive a red card.
Despite conceding three in his first game, Joachim Low opted for Zieler as third choice for Euro 2012, with the slightly older, more unassuming goalkeeper being preferred as number three to the youth and intensity of Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Zieler, though, faces a battle to retain that place for Brazil 2014. Last summer's second choice, Tim Weise has been cast aside by Low, but with Rene Adler back on the scene, as well as competition from Marc-Andre ter Stegen and a group of talented Under-21s, Zieler cannot allow his progress to stagnate.
5 - Ali Ahamada, 21, Toulouse/France.
Ahamada may be better known outside of France for the 95th-minute goal - a fantastic back header - he scored to earn his side a 2-2 draw with Rennes in September. The 21-year-old, though, is forging a reputaton in Ligue 1 as one of France's most promising young goalkeepers, having made 59 appearances since his debut at the age of 19.
According to former France keeper Gregory Coupet, Ahamada is "big, very athletic and very elastic". Like his hero, former Toulouse keeper Fabian Barthez, the France Under-21 international is not afraid to wander from his line, using his physique to dominate the penalty area.A relaxed character, Ahamada was an ever present for his club last season and played in every UEFA Euro Under-21 qualifier for France, who failed to reach next summer's finals after a calamitous play-off defeat to Norway. A senior call-up is Ahamada's next target, with the job of ousting 33-year-old Mickael Landreau as number three keeper in Didier Deschamps' squad very much within his capability.
4 - Tim Krul, 24, Newcastle United/Holland.
Krul went to Euro 2012 as Holland's third choice behind Maarten Stekelenburg and Michel Vorm, but the opportunity is there this season for the Newcastle stopper to establish himself as the Oranje's number one.
An early-season elbow injury temporarily derailed his bid to become Louis van Gaal's first choice but that is unlikely to destabilise Krul. The 24-year-old looked immediately at home when he took the gloves from Steve Harper in 2010, since when he has been impressively consistent, winning valuable points for Newcastle as an ever-present while they mounted a surprise bid for the top four last season.
After joining Newcastle as an 18-year-old from ADO Den Haag, Krul spent his remaining formative years learning from Shay Given and current deputy Steve Harper. Under their guidance, Krul has become a strong and reliable all-rounder - dominant in the air and intimidating in one-on-one situations - with few obvious weaknesses.
After attracting admiring glances from some of Europe's wealthier and more successful clubs, reportedly including Chelsea, Tottenham and Barcelona, the Newcastle hierarchy moved last March to tie one of their main assets down to a five-year contract, by the end of which Krul will surely have cemented his place as his country's number one.
3 - Salvatore Sirigu, 25, Paris Saint-Germain/Italy
Moneybags PSG could have their pick of the world's priciest goalkeepers, but that Carlo Ancelotti sticks with the Italian, who they signed from Palermo as a back-up, speaks volumes for Sirigu's level of performance since summer 2011.
Nicolas Douchez, who arrived in Paris during the same transfer window, was widely expected to be first choice but injury to the 31-year-old gave the stand-in the chance to become the star. Sirigu grabbed the opportunity with both hands, going on to be an ever-present as PSG narrowly missed out on the Ligue 1 title.
Sirigu was a late developer and had to wait until 22 before he was handed his league debut by goalkeeping legend Walter Zenga, who was then in charge of Palermo. Despite that, another Italian icon, Gianluigi Buffon already rates his national team deputy in the same class as Manuel Neuer and Joe Hart.
2 - Thibaut Coutois, 20, Atletico Madrid/Belgium.
There can be no doubt that Atletico Madrid got the better end of the deal which took David De Gea to Manchester United. Los Rojiblancos pocketed over £18million for a product of their youth system, and promptly replaced him with another teenager - a loanee who, arguably, is even better than the one they sold.
Chelsea signed Courtois in summer 2011 as a 19-year-old who, since making his first-team debut as a 16-year-old, had been named Belgian Goalkeeper of the Year and Genk Player of the Year on the way to helping his side win the Belgian title. A few eyebrows were raised when the Blues immediately packed the €9million signing off to Spain but, by the end of the season , they could claim to have Champions League and Europa League-winning goalkeepers on their books and the future safety of their goal secure.
It certainly has not been a case of 'out of sight, out of mind' for Chelsea. Courtois was given a strict training programme as well as a plane ticket to Madrid, the effectiveness of which was measured on three return trips to Cobham during his first season at Vicente Calderon. It seemed to work...
Courtois became undisputed number one ahead of Sergio Asenjo; he made his senior international debut; and he also added an extra foot to his leap while improving his already lightning-quick reflexes in just six months in the Spanish capital. Chelsea were also said to be delighted with the results of stress tests, which would have come as little surprise to anyone who watched the Belgian exude the kind of calmness and composure so rarely seen in a teenage goalkeeper.
It is surely more than a coincidence that Cech's form has improved as Courtois' return to Stamford Bridge has drawn closer. But the Chelsea number one has little to worry about - yet.
Courtois, who Cech has labelled "one of the best talents in European football", will see out two years in Madrid before likely leaving Chelsea again on loan, perhaps to a Premier League side. By the time Courtois returns to west London, Cech will be 32 and, while he will be far from finished, the previously undisputed number one will face a fight for his place for the first time in a decade as a Blue.
1 - Marc-Andre ter Stegen, 20, Borussia Monchengladbach/Germany
Even in an over-crowded field of young German goalkeeping talent, Ter Stegen stands out as Manuel Neuer's long-term rival for the national team spot.
Despite his youth, Ter Stegen displays the maturity and composure of a far more experienced goalkeeper, having burst on to the Bundesliga scene 18 months ago during 'Gladbach's relegation battle. The then-18-year-old was brought in with five games remaining, four of which resulted in shut-outs for the teenager, who provided a solid platform for The Foals to escape the drop via a play-off.
Ter Stegen continued his rapid development last season when he began the campaign as 'Gladbach's number one and ended it with the highest save percentage in the Bundesliga, with only Neuer and Bayern Munich conceding fewer goals.
Like many Germans of his generation, Ter Stegen has cited Oliver Kahn as his role model, though that would be obvious to anyone who has observed the way the youngster presides over his defence and takes each goal scored against him as a personal affront.
Kahn's iron-first approach did not endear him to everyone, and though Ter Stegen is equally short on sympathy when standards around him slip, this trait does not appear to have affected his standing in the 'Gladbach dressing room. Coach Lucien Favre recently said of his goalkeeper: "As a player and a person, he is perfect."
Despite failing to be named as one of the two goalkeepers in the squad for this week's friendly draw with Holland, coach Joachim Low was keen to highlight that his absence was no reflection on Ter Stegen, who also missed the cut for Euro 2012. The youngster remains "in focus", according to Low, who on this occasion preferred to field Neuer after the recent collapse against Sweden, while also re-integrating Rene Adler back into Die Mannschaft set up.
Low has also acknowledged Ter Stegen's "great composure and real presence for such a young goalkeeper", which are the qualities that already have Neuer looking over his shoulder.
There is a Bundesliga almost entirely full of German goalkeepers, all desperate to impress Low. Adler is again showing the quality and consistency which would have seen him keep Germany's goal ahead of Neuer at the 2010 World Cup had injury not intervened, but Ter Stegen is the one catching the eye of Low and the continent's biggest clubs.
Are there any young goalkeepers who you feel should have been in the list? Use the comment facility below to nominate those who you feel deserve a mention.