Liverpool’s exit from the Champions League at the hands of Real Madrid may signal the end of an era for the Merseyside club. Already trailing 5 -2 after being humiliated at home by the defending champions, they faced an uphill task in the return leg at the Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, a task that ultimately proved beyond them, a goal by Karim Benzema was enough to seal their fate.
Now they face an uphill battle if they want to qualify for the tournament again, and manager Jurgen Klopp faces a substantial rebuild at Anfield, with the team that brought him so much success now starting to break apart.
Champions League disappointment
This is not what Liverpool are used to in the Champions League. They have won the competition six times (the joint highest in the history of the competition), and their supporters always feel they have a special relationship with the tournament.
Matches like the “Miracle of Istanbul” and their recovery from a three goal semi-final deficit against Barcelona have become the stuff of club legends. They have been particularly successful under Jurgen Klopp. Winning the trophy in 2019, and ending as beaten finalists in 2018 and 2021.
There were hopes that they might avenge those two defeats to Real Madrid when the two sides were drawn against each other in the round of 16 again, especially as they raced into a two goal lead at Anfield.
However, the Spanish side then ruthlessly exposed all their defensive frailties by scoring five unanswered goals, handing the Premier League side their biggest ever home defeat in Europe.
That left them an almost insurmountable job in the second leg, and, in the end, they bowed out with a whimper and not a bang, Real scarcely needed to get out of second gear.
A poor season
This has been a poor season by Liverpool’s recently high standards. They are now out of all the cup competitions, and they are in a dog fight if they want to finish in the top four again and qualify for the Champions League.
They are currently sixth in the Premier League, six points behind Tottenham who are currently occupying fourth spot, and they have a game in hand. However, Newcastle United are fifth, who in turn have a game in hand, whilst both Brighton and Brentford are now breathing down their necks.
And the problem for Liverpool fans are they never know which team will turn up. One week they can thrash Manchester United by seven goals, and then the next they lose to bottom side Bournemouth.
Meanwhile, the team that brought them such success is beginning to break-up, especially their front three. Sadio Mané left to join Bayern Munich last summer, whilst Roberto Firmino has recently indicated that he will not sign a contract extension, and will be leaving on a free transfer at the end of the season.
Even the club’s record Premier League scorer Mo Salah has been linked with a move away.
Meanwhile some of their other players are ageing. Club captain Jordan Henderson is now 33, whilst stalwart James Milner, who started the game in Madrid, is the wrong side of his 37th birthday.
There have even been suggestions that Klopp himself might not last the distance. He is now in the seventh year of his time on Merseyside, and, at both the previous clubs he managed, Mainz and Borussia Dortmund, that proved to be the end of his useful shelf life as far as he was concerned.
The price of failure
The problem is that failure to qualify for the Champions League may deprive them of some of the funds that they need to finish the re-build.
For example, whilst they are one of a clutch of clubs who have been linked with a summer move for Jude Bellingham, they could find themselves out-bid for the Dortmund and England midfielder.
And, with no Champions League football available, Liverpool will automatically become a less attractive prospect for Bellingham and many other top players.
A good thing?
Some might argue that this might be a good thing for the club, giving them time to adopt a different model. To support this position, they might cite the example of Arsenal, once perennial Champions League qualifiers, but who have not played in the competition for six seasons now.
The Gunners, however, are almost guaranteed to be in it again next season, and arguably will return a better and stronger team.
That may be scant consolation next season for Liverpool fans if they are forced to watch the competition from the side-lines.
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