Liverpool want to fight Real Madrid for Jude Bellingham but can they afford him?
A penny for Jude Bellingham's thoughts? If only. The auction will start at £100 million for the England’s midfielder’s insight after seeing Real Madrid cruise past Liverpool in what might have been billed as the battle of Bellingham’s bidders.
The fight for Champions League progression ended in a demoralising defeat for Jurgen Klopp. The scrap to keep Bellingham’s out of the clutches of his European nemesis will be equally daunting.
On the surface there seems no choice, the ready-made Real superior to the side seeking to make him the central figure of their rebuild. Klopp must hope Bellingham’s is enthused by the idea of inspiring a club back to the top rather than assuming his seat at the summit.
If a reminder is still necessary of how great Liverpool’s need for a midfielder of heft and creativity, a team sheet including four attackers and a 37-year-old as a central lynchpin says enough.
“Message received,” as Liverpool’s owner John W Henry likes to say.
That’s not intended to be disrespectful to James Milner, a fine Kop servant who is already a legend.
But whether it is Bellingham, Mason Mount or Moises Caicedo ensuring Klopp never again has to feel so bereft of midfield options in such venues, Liverpool need 2023 to be like 2018. That was when Virgil van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Fabinho arrived to turn a side of potential into winners.
That trio were signed for a combined £171 million, most of it offset by the £142 million received for Philippe Coutinho. There is no Coutinho cash now, and the Champions League prize money is reduced by the round of sixteen elimination. There will not be any at all next season unless Liverpool can rally in the Premier League to finish 4th.
“A defining week,” is how Klopp described the next three fixtures against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.
So where is the confidence that Liverpool should even bother joining the race for Bellingham? Even if he can tolerate a season outside of the elite tournament, it will take more than a two per cent increase in matchday revenues to find the funds for his signature.
How Fenway Sports Group ensures Klopp recovers lost ground was the story before Liverpool completed the formalities of their European exit in the Bernabeu.
Ask Liverpool about interest in any summer midfield targets, especially the most expensive ones like Mount and Bellingham, and the affordability issue is unavoidable.
Reassurance comes from the fact that Klopp and the assorted Merseyside and Boston think tanks are advanced in the process of ensuring the team is more competitive next season.
Henry said as much in his last interview.
“While we formalised a process that has identified potential investors for the club, we remain fully committed to the long-term success of the club,” he recently told the Liverpool Echo.
Nothing Henry says is accidental, so his revelation that potential investors have already been ‘identified’ is a significant upgrade on the party line that FSG's search is ongoing.
Even Klopp shares his owner’s optimism. Does it mean a much-vaunted ‘strategic partnership’ is soon to be unveiled?
Knowing how FSG operates, if they were in advanced talks with an investor - or had even provisionally agreed a deal - there would be sound reasons for being reluctant to proclaim it to the world yet.
A cash injection while trying to justify a ticket price increase to fans - no matter how modest - would turn a positive story bad.
And football being the cut-throat business it is, any club announcing a multi-million pound partnership can anticipate an immediate impact on the valuation of long-term targets. Borussia Dortmund's asking price for Bellingham would probably increase by £50 million.
It could be that Henry is merely eager to clarify the ownership issue. But he must forgive suspicious minds who are forensically analysing each syllable and noting how frequently and positively he is chatting about the way ahead.
Not for the first time, Klopp and Henry will have surveyed the European football scene and considered Real Madrid their biggest pest. But for them, Klopp would already have two more Champions League winners’ medals.
There was no improbable comeback in Europe this time, but Liverpool do have one final chance to get the better of Real before the start of next season. A proactive pursuit of Bellingham would suggest that Klopp has the funds to launch his fightback. Without such finances and a midfield upgrade, he will have to keep turning up at the most challenging venues needing miracles.