The long trudge to the summer is underway for Liverpool. It would be wrong to say their season ended in the Santiago Bernabeu tonight; realistically their final hope of a trophy was extinguished well before tonight's 1-0 loss. Anyway, they do not get to just call it a night now with the rest of the Premier League ahead of them. They still face an almighty scrap just to get to what Jurgen Klopp has long since established as the bare minimum to expect from his side every year, Champions League qualification. Once that is secured (or not), the long-mooted rebuild might begin.
This game was almost as dispiriting as the 5-2 thrashing inflicted on Liverpool at Anfield last month. Real Madrid might not have run up the goals as they did in the first leg but that was due to a convalescence of clumsy finishing by the hosts and inspired shot stopping by Alisson. Three weeks ago every shot the defending champions in this competition hit seemed to arrow into the Liverpool net. Tonight, Luka Modric et al engaged in their own battle for the Puskas award until Karim Benzema rather spoiled the moment by converting the scruffiest chance of the night, Vinicius Junior sliding into fresh air on the volley before hooking the ball across for his No.9 to injure himself rolling the ball into an empty net.
Last year, Liverpool took every competition in which they were involved to the final kick in the final game. Now their last remaining prize is getting back to the tournament where they have been so roundly humiliated this season, not just this arm's length dismantling by the holders but the shellacking that Napoli laid out on them at the start of the Champions League campaign. From the moment Victor Osimhen glided through Klopp's backline and hit the post, the signs were there that this was not a team that could compete again.
Craving more soccer coverage? Listen below and follow House of Champions, a CBS Sports soccer podcast, bringing you top-notch analysis, commentary, picks and more.
As ever, the solutions to this malaise must lie in the transfer market. In actuality that might be the case for Klopp, a man who opens the club chequebook as a last resort. His old dogs are not really in learning mode anymore, the messages that were drilled into them for years now so deeply programmed that it seems impossible for these players to understand that there are occasions when on field adaptation is required.
Who should stay, who are Liverpool stuck with and who might arrive to sort this all out? Let's take a look:
The great front three that fired Klopp's side to Premier League and Champions League glory was probably torn apart too late in the day, but there are at least signs of a successor trident being forged at Anfield. There is a lot that remains unproven when it comes to Cody Gakpo and Darwin Nunez, two forwards who are little like Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. Nunez is particular has brought crash, bang and wallop to his new side; he is clearly a player who gets shots away.
If the newest arrivals don't quite work out there is at least strength in depth in the forward line. Liverpool might be paying Mohamed Salah prime wages, £350,000 a week to be precise, for performances that will inevitably be post prime sooner or later. He might even have begun to drop off this season, though 22 goals and 11 assists is no bad return. Add to the mix Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, over whom the most serious questions are whether they can pick up the form they showed before serious injuries and that's a promising mix.
The attack looks set and supplementing it will be a trio of youngsters who have established themselves as players who should have a role at Liverpool over the coming years: Harvey Elliott, Stefan Bajcetic and Fabio Carvalho. The former two got their minutes during the elimination by Real Madrid and looked like what they are, talented youngsters not yet capable of meaningfully impacting a tough Champions League tie in a positive way. Still, Bajcetic, who was injured and missed the Madrid elimination, has some of the tempo setting qualities in midfield that Liverpool have lacked aside from Thiago, while Elliott has the even more notable quality of offering a decent return of goals.
However Liverpool construct their next team, exploiting Trent Alexander-Arnold's on-ball qualities and shielding his defensive weaknesses should be at the heart of their consideration. It will doubtless help if they can rely on an extended run of games from Ibrahima Konate, who excelled in his first season covering the space behind his right back. Those two and Alisson should be safely ensconced in the Anfield rearguard for several years to come.
Veterans staying put
For the time being Klopp will doubtless persevere with Andrew Robertson and Virgil van Dijk even if it is fair to question whether players aged 29 and 32 at the start of the new season will ever get back to their very best. Losing the Van Dijk of old is probably going to offer the most profound tactical headache for Liverpool, who could play a high line that might otherwise have been cavalier because they had the best recovery defender in the world, a player with the physicality and eye for danger to shut down counters before they had begun. Such players are not easily replaced.
There may be Liverpool fans who would be more than happy for club captain Jordan Henderson to move on and he is another who seems to lack the physical qualities that made him so invaluable to the best versions of this team. However he will turn 33 in June and has a contract until 2025 that pays him a reported £140,000-a-week. Best of luck finding any takers for that. The same might be said if Liverpool ever wanted to get out of the Thiago business (there is no evidence they do). Not only is the Spaniard on the downslope of the age curve but he also has even more of a track record of injuries having played in just 93 of his side's 155 games since he left Bayern Munich, completing a full 90 minutes in a mere 32. Going forward, Thiago profiles as someone whose presence will always be welcome in a Liverpool side but whose availability cannot be taken for granted.
Open to offers
The other player who started the season in Liverpool's strongest midfield is Fabinho, whose decline has been so pronounced over recent months that there has to be a strong possibility of the Reds doing business for the Brazilian. The question, as ever with ageing stars at big six Premier League clubs, is who on earth might be able to take him off their hands? In all likelihood the 29 year old is staying put as a default option. Joel Matip could be in the same boat; his wages are lower, but a six figure weekly pay packet takes him out of reach of a lot of clubs on the continent.
There are not that many players Liverpool could obviously sell for the sort of money that would top up a transfer kit that cannot be limitless under the ownership of Fenway Sports Group. Players such as Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Phillips have proven themselves at Premier League level, the former in particular drew much admiration before signing his new deal at Anfield and Aston Villa could revive their interest in the England international.
One of the ways in which Liverpool have particularly excelled in the transfer market is cashing in on promising youngsters who probably will not make their team but might improve others. It is debatable whether any of Jordon Ibe, Dominic Solanke and Nico Williams actually did, but they brought a lot of money to the Anfield coffers. Could Curtis Jones and Caoimhin Kelleher do so this summer? Both would be useful players to have in Klopp's squad, but neither profile as long term starters. The fees they raise might allow Liverpool to sign those that would.
One player has already confirmed he intends to move on, Roberto Firmino informing Klopp earlier this month that he would not take up the offer of a new deal. Inter Milan are among the clubs interested in the Brazilian, who will depart on a free transfer. It is expected that Naby Keita will do the same, perhaps back to Germany, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's infrequent involvement indicates his Liverpool career will end after nearly six years. Loanee Arthur Melo is another whose services won't be required beyond the new season.
What Liverpool need
For so long the answer to this question has started and ended with one man, Jude Bellingham. The England international was viewed as a Klopp player in waiting even before he went to the German's former club, Borussia Dortmund. He would offer them everything they most desperately need: ball progression through midfield, third man runs into the penalty area and defensive rigidity to name but a few of his ludicrously extensive assets.
It is, however, not remotely guaranteed that a player coveted by Real Madrid and Manchester City will pick the Reds even if they have long been considered favorites for his signature. Talented as he is, Bellingham alone would surely not be enough, as Jamie Carragher noted on the CBS Sports UEFA Champions League Post-Game show after the first leg loss.
"Liverpool at times before the World Cup felt they needed a midfield player or two midfield players, the more you watch this Liverpool team, you're thinking I think it's more four to go into the team, not just the squad," he said. Such a radical overhaul might not be possible in one window but when even Klopp has acknowledged that he should have strengthened the midfield in the summer it is fair to assume that there may be more than one new arrival in the Anfield engine room. Add not just Bellingham but someone behind him who can convincingly shield a defense like Fabinho used to and the Liverpool midfield goes from a chasm of chaos to a game-winning component of a side filled with talent elsewhere.
That aside, it is certainly time to think about a center back who can be groomed to succeed Van Dijk and perhaps a similar player at left back. On the opposite flank Alexander-Arnold might benefit from competition or perhaps even an alternate who is a pure defender, an upgraded version of the flexibility Erik ten Hag has between Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Digo Dalot at Manchested United.
Equally, look long and hard at this squad and the reality is this is not one in need of the "open heart surgery" that Ralf Rangnick called for at Old Trafford last season. As outgoing head of research Ian Graham noted earlier this month, the lows this campaign has brought have hardly been reflective of a team who rank somewhere around the third or fourth best in England. Spending hundreds of millions on half a dozen potential starters this summer might get them back to contending for titles but so might anything approaching a bounce back from Van Dijk and Robertson, a season of comparable quality from Salah and a little more fortune on the injury front. This great Liverpool side was not forged in the space of one summer, nor will it be torn down and replaced with something of comparable excellence quite so quickly.