A new year, a new FIFA World Cup to start counting down to. As the defending world champions, Germany will be looking to assert their dominance at international level once again, and as the weeks tick by, competition to be included in the final squad is becoming increasingly fierce.
Of the 23 players that coach Joachim Löw will take to Russia, three places will be filled by goalkeepers. Captain Manuel Neuer of Bayern Munich and Marc-Andre ter Stegen of Barcelona are more than likely to feature, leaving one spot open to a clutch of custodians vying to join them. bundesliga.com takes a look at the candidates to be on the plane to Russia…
Watch: The Bundesliga is home to some of the world's best goalkeepers!
Bernd Leno, Bayer Leverkusen
Bundesliga appearances: 222
Clean sheets: 71
He may be just 25 years old but Leno is perhaps the favourite to join Neuer and ter Stegen in Russia. The Leverkusen man is one of his side’s longest-serving players, having played 222 times in the Bundesliga and kept 71 clean sheets since arriving from Stuttgart in 2012. Now into his sixth season as the club’s no.1, Leno is Bayer's first choice to wear the armband when Lars Bender is unavailable. As well as holding the record for the longest time without conceding for Leverkusen (527 minutes in 2014/15), Leno is also known as a "penalty-killer" having saved nine of the 38 penalties he has faced in the Bundesliga..
That said, his last appearance for Germany was in a 3-2 win against Australia at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, after which coach Löw challenged him to improve: "He could have saved the second goal, but he's a very good keeper and always makes a good impression in training."
Comfortable with the ball at his feet, Leno's passing ability has long stood out compared to his contemporaries. Under Heiko Herrlich, Leverkusen have risen steadily up the league table this term and could well find themselves in a UEFA Champions League spot come the end of the season, which could go a long way to ensuring the ever-present Leno is involved in Russia.
Watch: Leno reflects on his remarkable performance at former club Stuttgart on Matchday 15 this season
Sven Ulreich, Bayern Munich
Bundesliga appearances: 199
Clean sheets: 45
In the summer of 2015, Ulreich swapped first a first-choice berth at Stuttgart for a reserve spot behind Neuer at Bayern. It was a move that prompted surprise, and in his first two seasons in Bavaria, Ulreich made just 10 appearances in total.
However, in the absence of Germany’s no.1 (waylaid with a foot injury since Matchday 5) Ulreich has stepped up to the plate impressively. Bouncing back from an error in a 2-2 draw with Wolfsburg on Matchday 6, the 29-year-old has been the epitome of reliability, and his performance in the win at Stuttgart - dealing admirably with a hostile reception from the home support and saving a stoppage-time penalty – will live long in the memory.
Ironically he will likely need Neuer to remain on the sidelines to continue to prove he is worthy of a spot in the squad for Russia, but his extended run in the first team has re-established Ulreich as one of Germany’s most talented goalkeepers, an effort that has not gone unnoticed by Germany boss Löw.
"Sven has put in pleasing performances for Bayern in recent months," the World Cup winner said. "He's very strong in one-on-ones and has improved in a footballing sense at Bayern. He's on our radar for the tournament in Russia."
Watch: Ulreich's best Bundesliga saves!
Timo Horn, Cologne
Bundesliga appearances: 108
Clean sheets: 31
One of Germany’s most talented goalkeepers in a generation, Cologne-born-and-bred Horn has been a fixture in the Billy Goats’ back line since the start of the 2012/13 season and became the first goalkeeper to go four games without conceding a goal after his Bundesliga debut in 2014/15.
Now aged 24, he has over a century of top-flight appearances under his belt, and although he has only made four U-21 outings in national colours, Horn was ever-present as Germany won silver in the 2016 Olympics (losing out to a Neymar-inspired Brazil on penalties in the final).
Testament to his understanding of the game and fine shot-stopping ability, Horn is yet to concede a goal from outside the box this season, despite Cologne's struggles.
Watch: Horn talks us through his greatest save, which came at the Allianz Arena
Oliver Baumann, Hoffenheim
Bundesliga appearances: 254
Clean sheets: 67
Hoffenheim’s no.1 has flown somewhat under the radar, despite an impressive Bundesliga career that now numbers over 250 matches for the Sinsheimers and Freiburg (between 2010 and 2014). Having been on the fringes of a call-up to the Germany squad for a number of years, Baumann has since helped Hoffenheim finish fourth in 2016/17, keeping 12 clean sheets - the second most in the top flight - during the campaign, and could feasibly do so again this season, after which his stock would no doubt rise even higher.
Since arriving in at the Wirsol Rhein Neckar Arena, the 27-year-old has only missed one Bundesliga game - an academic end-of-season encounter against Schalke in 2015/16 in which Jens Grahl was afforded a farewell party - and as well as cutting out the errors that characterised his game as a youngster, Baumann has become a bit of a "penalty-killer" himself, with three of the last five spot-kicks against him missed.
Ralf Fährmann, Schalke
Bundesliga appearances: 167
Clean sheets: 47
The Schalke goalkeeper has played fewer games in the Bundesliga than his contemporaries – 'only' 163 – but at the age of 29, Fährmann is entering his prime. He has been rock-solid for the Royal Blues for a number of seasons now (Fährmann hasn't missed a Bundesliga game since April 2015) and his performances have risen a further notch since he was handed the club captaincy by coach Domenico Tedesco at the start of the campaign.
Having led Die Knappen's youthful outfit so well during their rise up the table, a call-up to the national-team squad for the friendlies against Spain and Brazil in March would not so much be a shock as a natural progression for a goalkeeper who represented his country at every age-group level from U16 to U21.
A fine penalty save from RB Leipzig's Jean-Kevin Augustin on Matchday 18 only served to underline his value: 10 of the 28 penalties taken against Fährmann have been missed, while he was the only goalkeeper to save four spot-kicks last season. In terms of a head-to-head comparison with his rivals, the Chemnitz native sits level with his Baumann for clean sheets this season, with six, the third best tally among German goalkeepers behind Leno and Ulreich.
Watch: Our Advent Calendar for 2017 included some of Fährmann's best Bundesliga saves
Of course, time enough remains for a handful of other names to be thrown into the mix. Ron-Robert Zieler, third-choice at the 2014 World Cup, is enjoying a solid campaign at Stuttgart; Kevin Trapp could get back into contention by re-establishing himself at Paris St Germain; and Julian Pollersbeck, a star for Germany’s U-21s last season, is competing for the no.1 spot at Hamburg.
Whatever happens between now and the summer, Löw at least has an extremely deep pool of talent to choose from.