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 By Mark Lovell

Bayern Munich look vulnerable with Sven Ulreich back-up to Manuel Neuer

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti has played down reports of a rift between Carlo Ancelotti and his players.

Bayern Munich have three players they cannot afford to be without for a long time -- Robert Lewandowski, Arjen Robben and Manuel Neuer. The German champions will be rocked by the news their captain and goalkeeper Neuer will miss the rest of the year after surgery on his foot.

Bayern's captain suffered a recurrence of his metatarsal misery and went under the knife on the same day as the German champions, seeking their sixth Bundesliga in succession, moved back to the top of the table with a leisurely 3-0 win against Schalke.

Understudy Sven Ulreich filled in capably on only his eighth league appearance for Bayern, producing a string of fine saves to preserve his side's comfortable advantage, most notably from Guido Burgstaller in the second half.

The 29-year-old former Stuttgart keeper has played 14 competitive matches (including the Super Cup curtain raiser) since joining Bayern in 2015, conceding 15 goals. He is a decent backup, but is certainly no Neuer. Like 99.9 percent of the goalkeeping fraternity, Ulreich lacks Neuer's commanding presence and aura, not to mention Neuer's innate football ability, such as his sublime skills with his feet. Opposition forwards often quake in their boots when bearing down on the imposing and dominant Neuer. However, there isn't a fear factor when facing Ulreich.

He played in last season's 3-2 home defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the DFB Pokal semifinal -- in the aftermath of another Neuer injury setback -- and was powerless to prevent that painful cup exit. Despite not making any glaring mistakes, he does not lend the defence any security with even the legend Philipp Lahm looking a lesser player with only Ulreich behind to bail him out of trouble.

The stats do not lie and indicate Bayern are far more fragile and insecure with Ulreich stationed in behind them, with just five clean sheets to his name in his 14 games over three seasons, including Tuesday's in Gelsenkirchen. In his debut season in 2015-16 under Pep Guardiola, he had to wait until the final day of the campaign to make his Bundesliga debut for Bayern, given 39 pity minutes in the second half as an afterthought to allow him a league winner's medal. There was still time for him to concede a goal against already-relegated Hanover.

Manuel Neuer will miss the rest of 2017 following foot surgery.

In addition, a particularly embarrassing Champions League defeat in Rostov springs to mind, letting in three goals in a 3-2 defeat at Russian minnows Rostov last November.

Ulreich also suffered an elbow injury after filling in for five Bundesliga games last term, meaning veteran third-choice Tom Starke was plunged back into the limelight once again before quietly slipping into retirement.

There is talk that the 36-year-old Starke may have to put his slippers to one side and come out of retirement once again to help his side out, as he did when both Ulreich and Neuer were laid low for the summer tour of China and Singapore.

The popular Starke recently took over as goalkeeping coach at the club's new state-of-the-art academy, but Carlo Ancelotti might enjoy having a good experienced standby up his sleeve.

While both Ulreich and Starke are no mugs, the defence looks porous without the calm and reassuring presence of Neuer behind them -- especially judging by the evidence of five defeats in six preseason games. Bayern conceded 14 goals in those five losses, but Ulreich helped stop the rot against Leverkusen as the Bavarians were all at sea defensively on the Bundesliga's opening night. He produced a host of fine reflex saves in a 3-1 win for the defending champions. 

As the comfortable 3-0 win against Schalke proved on Tuesday, there will be no winter of discontent and Bayern will find a way to cope with Neuer's absence. And with no disrespect to Celtic and Anderlecht, the German champions would probably finish in the top two of their Champions League group with 65-year-old president Uli Hoeness in goal. Nevertheless, Bayern will be boosted by the prospect of a fit and healthy Neuer returning for their inevitable round of 16 Champions League clash next February.

However, with the mouth-watering trip to Paris Saint-Germain looming next week, whether Ulreich is able to keep a clean sheet against Neymar and Kylian Mbappe is another matter entirely. 

Mark Lovell covers Bayern Munich for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @LovellLowdown.

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