By Simon Evans
KIEV (Reuters) – When the bitter disappointment and pain of Saturday’s 3-1 Champions League final loss to Real Madrid begins to ease Juergen Klopp will be able to reflect on a magnificent run in Europe but also on what he needs to do next to take his team to the next level.
Liverpool finished second in Europe and fourth in the Premier League and even a club with such high expectations and rich history can view that with a good deal of pride.
Events unfolded in the Ukrainian capital on Saturday in a way which will, however, leave Liverpool fans forever wondering if they missed a great opportunity to clinch a sixth European title.
The first-half exit of top-scorer Mohamed Salah with injury and the two dreadful goalkeeping errors from Loris Karius had a huge impact on the outcome of the final, along with a goal of uncommon brilliance from Real’s Gareth Bale.
But Klopp, who has now lost his last six finals as a coach, surely would not be fooled into seeing the finale to the season purely in terms of bad luck and individual errors.
While it was right and proper that his words after the game regarding keeper Loris Karius’s awful errors, which cost two goals, were sympathetic and supportive, Klopp will no doubt reflect on his decision-making over the goalkeeper position.
There have long been questions over whether German Karius, signed from Klopp’s former club Mainz, and Belgian keeper Simon Mignolet are of the standard required for a team aiming to compete at the highest level.
The pair alternated as first choice before Klopp decided, in January, to put his faith in Karius. But the cold reality is that a club of Liverpool’s stature and resources can do much better than either custodian.
It would be remarkable if they did not rectify that situation in the close-season transfer window.
Just as the January signing of Virgil van Dijk added much-needed strength, solidity and composure to a defence which has long been questioned, so Liverpool will benefit significantly from the arrival of a top class goalkeeper.
The highlights reel of Liverpool’s season will be full of wonderful goals from the Egyptian genius Salah, the speedy Senagalese Sadio Mane and crafty Brazilian Roberto Firmino who combined to rip apart Porto, Manchester City and AS Roma in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
But when Salah walked off the field in tears suffering from a shoulder injury, Liverpool’s only forward option on the bench was the inexperienced 20-year-old Dominic Solanke.
Klopp, therefore, opted for attacking midfielder Adam Lallana, who due to injury had started just three games this season and played 16 minutes in the previous six weeks.
Because Liverpool play with three attackers – and their system works so well with such an approach – they surely need other high-quality options in that area.
The long season that awaits, competing on multiple fronts as they hope to challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title next season, will require a squad that can allow Salah and company to be rested at times and covered for in times of injury.
Klopp has had some major successes in the transfer market and will hope that the acquisition of 23-year-old Guinean central midfielder Naby Keita from RB Leipzig will prove to be as successful as the arrival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal.
The Englishman was injured for the final and his powerful running and aggression were missed at times, especially when the game opened up in the second half.
There are doubts over the future of Emre Can with the German midfielder’s contract about to expire and if he does depart that will increase the need for another quality midfielder to compliment Jordan Henderson and James Milner, who enjoyed excellent campaigns.
The agony of the loss at the NSC Olympic Stadium and the need for Liverpool to have more cover and greater options next season, should not however diminish what has been an outstanding season from Klopp’s team.
They played a type of attacking, positive football that has been all too rare in the modern game and which won them the appreciation of neutrals across the world.
Crucially they also enjoyed three wins in their four encounters with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City — results which suggest they are capable of launching a genuine title bid.
But they also finished 25 points behind City, suffering 12 draws in the domestic league — the joint highest of clubs in the top ten.
Klopp will know that for all the applause this season has generated there is room for improvement. His job now is to deliver that next step forward.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Sudipto Gangu;y)