By Clark Whitney | German Football Editor
It all started with a swing and a miss. Manuel Neuer received a back-pass, attempted a clearance, and only the breeze from his passing foot made the ball move at all. He's too inexperienced on the big stage, a goalkeeper for a good, but never an elite club - definitely not in the class of Iker Casillas or Gianluigi Buffon.
After his embarrassing moment, Neuer grew in confidence. Many might have blushed for the rest of the match, but the Germany No. 1 - like the rest of his Bayern Munich team-mates - gained his composure after going 2-0 down to Real Madrid in their Champions League semi-final second leg at the raucous Santiago Bernabeu.
Bayern after the quarter-hour appeared destined for defeat, but looked the better side afterwards and deservedly pulled a goal back. The visitors should have won it before extra time, but the score remained 2-1 through 90 minutes, and even 120.
|FROM OUR LIVE COMMENTARY|
|PSO||NEUER SAVES RONALDO'S PENALTY!! The German keeper does brilliantly to save low down to his right|
|PSO||KAKA'S PENALTY IS SAVED!!! Neuer adjusts superbly to stop the Brazilian's firm effort.
| PLAYER RATING
|7.5||Made a rather nervy start to the game, which would not have been helped by the fact that he was left helpless as the visitors struck twice quickly. Responded well, showing good handling to field a dipping Ronaldo free kick just before the break and turning away a Benzema drive in the second half. Superb in the shoot-out.|
Four efforts came Neuer's way: only one found the net. To begin the shoot-out, Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up to the spot. Buoyed by two goals he scored in the opening minutes, including a penalty, as well as the opportunity to gain an edge in his rivalry with Lionel Messi, the Portuguese arrived with confidence. He struck a good kick towards the lower-left corner. But Neuer pounced to his right, extended his arm, and stole the limelight.
Another former World Player of the Year was next up for Real Madrid in the form of Kaka. The Brazilian aimed for the same corner, and again, Neuer made the stop.
For the third, Xabi Alonso coolly took his spot-kick, waiting just long enough for Neuer to dive. He scored: an excellent effort from a wise and cool player.
But then came the notoriously nervy Sergio Ramos, who - perhaps spooked by Neuer's previous saves - blasted high over the bar, and nearly out of the Bernabeu itself. Bastian Schweinsteiger converted the next kick for Bayern, and the Germans advanced 3-1 on penalties.
On the whole, Neuer has had a frustrating first year at Bayern. He went 1147 minutes without conceding earlier this season, but a blunder or two has prompted hefty criticism. Arguably, youngsters Bernd Leno and Marc-Andre ter Stegen have outperformed him in the Bundesliga.
This season, Neuer has had to adjust to playing for an elite team, a job that is quieter than it was at Schalke. In Gelsenkirchen, he was constantly in the spotlight, and always had the chance to showcase his talents. His defence was notoriously poor, and nearly every game he'd have a one on one (or 10) to defend. At Bayern, a busy game might require one or two saves. On aggregate performance, he has been more worldly this season than in the past.
At Schalke, he gave some memorable performances in the Champions League. Manchester United fans will remember his heroics at the same stage last season, but arguably the best performance of his career came in 2007, when he single-handedly led his side to an improbable advancement at the expense of Porto.
At Bayern, Neuer hasn't had the same opportunities as before. But finally, on the grand stage of the Champions League semi-final and facing arguably the greatest team in the world, the 26-year-old had his chance, and took it. In a week in which Ronaldo and Messi were tipped for greatness, it was the Bayern goalkeeper who stepped up and made his mark.
To simplify Neuer's impact into a couple ofpenalty saves would be a mistake, overlooking critical psychological elements. After seeing two shots saved before, Ramos was clearly worried about producing a saveable shot. Instead, he aimed for a much more difficult location than he otherwise might have, and missed. In effect, Neuer's first two saves might as well have stopped another.
More important, however, was the keeper's effect on Bayern as a whole. In previous years, with Thomas Kraft or Hans-Jorg Butt between the posts, the outfielders might have felt they needed a winner before penalties - especially when facing an elite shot-stopper such as Casillas.
During extra time, however, Bayern did not lose their composure, they did not overextend themselves looking for a winner. They did not defend too deep, but it appeared that they were eyeing up a shoot-out, a testament to their trust in Neuer. Their trust, as well as that of the Bayern board, was repaid in full on Wednesday night in the Spanish capital as they had a world-class performance from a world-class goalkeeper.