Bayern Munich goalkeeper Sven Ulreich took another step out of Manuel Neuer's shadow on his return to former club Stuttgart, playing a pivotal role in helping the Bundesliga leaders earn a 1-0 win at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on Saturday afternoon.
The 29-year-old rose through the youth ranks in Stuttgart and was with the Swabians for 17 years before switching to the reigning Bundesliga champions in summer 2015. Returning to face his former employers for the first time, Ulreich kept a clean sheet and saved a last-minute penalty in stoppage time to help Bayern hold onto a narrow 1-0 victory.
Watch: Highlights of Bayern's win in Stuttgart
"You couldn't have written a movie script better than this," Ulreich said afterwards. "I had a good feeling with the penalty. I'm happy I could help the team by saving it and that we're going home with a win in the bag."
It was telling that after the final whistle, shouts of "Ulle, Ulle" rang out from the fans waiting by the Bayern team bus, rather than the names of his more illustrious team-mates. Indeed, it is a sign of his increasing standing in the side, with Ulreich having recovered from an early wobble at moving from Neuer's understudy to becoming the leading man and establishing himself as a reliable and competent goalkeeper in his own right.
Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes offered a similar appraisal of his custodian: "He's gained the team's respect and has become even stronger after working with our goalkeeping coach Tony Tapalovic," the veteran tactician said in his post-match press conference. "He's confident and, it goes without saying, I have faith in him."
Ulreich is indeed full of confidence and has earned that trust with a series of solid displays, including saving another penalty from Hannover's Niclas Füllkrug on Matchday 14. The goalkeeper points to his work in training with Tapalovic at improving his presence in the penalty box, his reaction time in one-on-one situations and initiating attacks – one area that was long considered his main weakness.
Such has been the rate of Ulreich's development that he is now rightly considered one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga, a moniker not given out lightly considering the number of high-quality custodians in Germany's top flight.
Ulreich's contract at Bayern expires in summer 2018 and although Heynckes has urged the club to extend his deal, the thoughts of returning to the role of Neuer's back-up next year understandably hold little appeal, now that he has had a taste of regular first-team football. "It would be difficult [to go back to that] after playing so many games," he told bundesliga.com.
Watch: A medley of Ulreich's finest saves
"Obviously it wouldn't be easy to sit on the bench but I knew what I was signing up for when I joined Bayern in the first place. I've learned a lot in the last few months here and I've also benefitted from Manu [Neuer] – you can learn so much by watching him. I've had good coaches and with experience you don't make the same mistakes you used to."
Whatever the future may hold, one thing is certain right now: Ulreich is in the form of his life and a pivotal part of this Bayern team. The next chance to prove his worth will arrive on Wednesday when Bayern host Borussia Dortmund in the DFB Cup round of 16. And with Ulreich between the posts, should it go to penalties there's no doubt who the smart money would be on…