Marc-Andre ter Stegen's improved play a big part of Barcelona's success
Watching Gianluigi Buffon miss out on a place at the World Cup with Italy last week almost brought Ivan Rakitic to tears. In fact, the Barcelona midfielder felt so bad about the Juventus goalkeeper not going to next summer's tournament in Russia that he said he'd swap places with him if he could.
Buffon, ever the gentleman, took to Twitter to thank Rakitic for his words. And to tell him it would not be possible -- he doesn't fancy his chances in Croatia's midfield as a 39-year-old.
However, despite the fact Buffon will turn 40 in January in what will be his final season as a professional, you'd be hard pressed to find a country going to the World Cup who wouldn't take him in their squad as a goalkeeper at the drop of a hat. Despite his age, he's still in the same place he's been for the last decade -- at the very top of the game -- and just last month was named as the fourth best player in the world in 2017. There is not a goalkeeper out there who doesn't want to emulate him.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is one of them. Barcelona is a good place to do that and the German goalkeeper's form this season means he must, at last, be considered among the world's best, right up there with Buffon & Co.
On Sunday, Barca's official Twitter account posted a photograph of Ter Stegen embracing Lionel Messi. The caption with said image read: "The two biggest reasons we are where we are right now."
Barca currently sit atop La Liga, four points clear of Valencia and 10 ahead of archrival Real Madrid. They also sit in first place in their Champions League group and a draw against Buffon's Juventus on Wednesday will see them guarantee their place in the round of 16 as group winners. Messi's goals are one of the reasons for that success but, as Barca themselves are willing to point out, Ter Stegen's a big reason, too.
Despite a 17-game unbeaten run, Ernesto Valverde's side have not always looked sharp. They've even rode their luck at times.
"I prefer to never shine and to win every game," Rakitic told a news conference on Wednesday when faced with criticism of Barcelona's performances this season. "We can always improve. The shine will come."
Luckily, while they're working on that shine, they've been able to rely on Ter Stegen -- with an honourable mention to centre-back Samuel Umtiti. After spending his first two seasons as a substitute in La Liga -- restricted to European nights and Copa del Rey duty -- Ter Stegen became the outright No.1 after Claudio Bravo's move to Manchester City. It's not always been easy. He's talented with the ball at his feet but overplaying has been a problem at times and it cost Barca at Celta Vigo last season.
But, in goalkeeping years, he's still young. If Buffon's the barometer, at 25 he's got another 15 years at the top. And he's learning. His decision-making with the ball is better. Most importantly, though, he's developing into a brilliant shot-stopper.
After a 2-0 win at Athletic Bilbao this season, Sergio Busquets credited Ter Stegen for the win. Last weekend, against Leganes, he was again vital as Barca picked up another three points. In 16 La Liga and Champions League appearances this season, he has conceded just five goals, keeping 11 clean sheets. He has saved 19 of the last 20 shots he has faced.
Those statistics will be put to the test this week. Barca face Juventus and Valencia away from Camp Nou. Not only are they two tough games, but the second, save a successful appeal, will be played without the suspended Gerard Pique. With Javier Mascherano missing both matches through injury, Thomas Vermaelen is likely to get minutes. Ter Stegen may need to be at his best.
Barca have a cushion to manage any potential crisis in defence. Those leads they've built up at home and in Europe mean any defeat should not lead to a panic. Especially given the circumstances surrounding the club when the season kicked off.
Ter Stegen's ultimate aim should be to replicate Buffon. What goalkeeper wouldn't sign up for that career (without the tears of missing out on one last World Cup)? But this week, he would probably settle for a place in the Champions League last 16 and a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga -- and two more clean sheets for his ever-expanding curriculum.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.