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May 11, 2014

Inglorious season peters out

Manchester United's season is now officially over, but it finished as a meaningful exercise more than a month ago. Tottenham's handsome victory over Aston Villa ensures that there will be no European football at Old Trafford next season for the first time since Take That topped the charts. This limp 1-1 draw against Southampton was the valedictory performance for several players; they will not look back on their final season fondly.

- Report: Southampton 1-1 Manchester United

In Juan Mata and Robin van Persie, Manchester United were able to field two players whose value equalled the entire Southampton squad. This was not something you could have ascertained from watching the football match. United posted another uneven performance and fell behind to a goal from Rickie Lambert, a former Liverpool trainee.

Liverpool will be playing in the Champions League next season. For all of the schadenfreude, it will be tough for United fans to see their old rivals on Europe's finest stages while they sit at home twiddling their thumbs. The summer will be a period of dark introspection for some.

In a move of questionable class, somebody had organised for a plane to fly over Anfield with a banner trailing behind it bearing "United 20 Gerrard 0". This may provide satisfaction for some, but a league campaign that sees Manchester City finish top is a catastrophe for United, too.

United will get a clear run to try and put things right next term. The Europa League's reputation for being a drain on competing clubs is well-earned. The structure of the competition is such that the volume of fixtures required to win it can put a strain on even the strongest squads.

English football already demands a lot from its clubs with two domestic cup competitions and a packed Christmas schedule. Liverpool's tilt at the title has also been undoubtedly aided by their lack of commitments in Europe this year.

But that is all cold logic. Football is a game of glory and Manchester United embody that more than most. This season there was none and next year will provide no European stage for the world's so-called biggest club.

The main benefit of the spare time United will have next season is the opportunity to hit the training field. Rumoured incoming manager-elect Louis van Gaal has an excellent record for improving young players and he would have work to do if he arrives.

Shinji Kagawa, three years ago the finest player in Germany's Bundesliga, was withdrawn at halftime after another fruitless display. His departure helped interim boss Ryan Giggs restore balance to the side with the introduction of Michael Carrick and United did find their way back into the match through Juan Mata's equaliser.

But the switch highlighted the problems United have experience all season: A manager learning on the job and players performing below par and with diminished confidence. The last nine months have been pretty undignified in many ways.

After Mata's goal, the match petered out. Southampton is an awfully long way for United's away support to travel and the last journey home of the season left plenty of time for discussion of what went wrong this season.

For United, there is a long road back.

Follow Mark Payne at www.twitter.com/markjpayne