Liverpool winger Stewart Downing may have improved in the second half of the 2012-13 season, but if the Reds are to compete for a Champions League spot next season, they'll need to upgrade at the position.
Which means if there is interest in Downing on the market, the Reds should gladly sell. And it sounds like they will.
Liverpool winger Stewart Downing is a loan target for Fulham.
But Cottagers boss Martin Jol is set to be frustrated, as the Reds want a transfer fee to part with the 28-year-old.
England international Downing, bought from Aston Villa for £20m two years ago, is among a number of players in the Anfield giants' squad available at the right price this summer.
Look, Downing really improved under Brendan Rodgers this season, scoring five goals and adding six assists in all competitions. By the end of the year, he was one of Liverpool's most consistent players, a far cry from the previous year-and-a-half at the club.
But let's break down what Downing's future at the club should really be.
The team needs to upgrade at winger to make Rodgers' system all the more effective, there is no question about it. And if that means Downing is relegated to the bench, do you really think he'll be happy?
He's 28 years old—he's at his peak now. He won't want to spend his peak playing a few cup matches and sitting on the bench the rest of the time.
And besides, Liverpool have a lot of young options that need more seasoning. Downing would be nice to have since he can play multiple positions, but for a young team, is it really worth playing him at the expense of guys like Raheem Sterling or Fabio Borini gaining experience?
Liverpool can approach next season in two ways. The team can really go after improving a few key positions—defense, winger, etc.—and make a run for the Champions League. Or, if the budget is too limited and the transfer targets Rodgers covets can't be bought, Liverpool can look to gun for a Europa League spot or cup title and play the youngsters as often as possible.
In either scenario, it's hard to see where Downing fits in. In the former scenario, selling him to earn some much-needed cash makes the most sense. In the latter, he's simply taking away playing time from the youngsters.
And what you saw after January is what you're going to get from Downing moving forward. Nothing more, and hopefully nothing less. He's not going to improve beyond what was seen late in the year.
When it comes right down to it, that level of play may be enough to keep Liverpool in seventh place, but it isn't going to take them any higher than that. Downing is a nice player, yes, but the Reds can do better.
And if the right offer comes to them in the summer, they should try to do just that.