When Manchester United finished the 2012-13 Premier League season a whopping 11 points clear of their nearest rivals, nobody could have expected that just nine months later that same team would be languishing in seventh position in the EPL standings.

That 11-point gap which was once a source of great delight for the Red Devils is now the exact same amount that separates the champions from the fourth and final Champions League place.

At this point in proceedings it looks inevitable that the club will—for the first time in the history of the reformed English league system—finish the campaign outside of the coveted top four. As a result, it is more than likely that they will be forced to enter into the Europa League group stages for the first time in their history come the start of next year.

This probable outcome is potentially one of the most damaging setbacks that United will have had to face in their long history.

Since the EL (or as it was formerly known, the UEFA Cup) has come into existence, its presence has on more than one occasion served as a genuine hindrance to Premier League sides competing in it.

Middlesbrough, Fulham and most recently Newcastle are all sides who have been thrown into the heart of a relegation battle as a direct result of their enforced commitments to the competition.

Most notably of the three, Newcastle amazingly managed to plummet from a fifth-place finish in 2011-12 (which saw them beat the then Champions League winners Chelsea in the overall standings) to a side who narrowly avoided relegation on the penultimate day of the 2012-13 EPL season.

This year we have seen much of the same from Swansea City. Having  won the League Cup and put in a fantastic outing in last year’s Premier League campaign, the Swans have gradually slipped into relegation contention themselves—with only a recent surge in form taking them partially away from the dreaded drop. Arguably again a direct result of the Europa League.

Hi-res-786a1a8f80c2e4902f02f3130c5cc3f3_crop_exact Swansea only now seem to be getting back on track—too late for Michael Laudrup however, who lost his job as a result of poor form
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Perhaps most pertinently for United fans to observe however, is the constant cycle that the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and until this season Liverpool had been faced with in regards to the “lesser” European cup. All three of these sides have made a recent habit of finishing in Europa League places.

This continual involvement with the secondary European club competition leads to a paradoxical chain that, unless broken, can doom a side for as much as half a decade.

For teams in the upper echelons of the division, it goes a little something like this:

  • Liverpool (for example) fail to qualify for Champions League
  • That proceeding summer they lack the appeal of Champions League football for potential transfers and fail to expand as much as they want
  • The following season the side faces an extortionate amount of fixtures thanks to the EL and are unable to perform well (due in part to the lack of top-quality transfers) in the EPL
  • They again finish outside of the top four as a result

Thus the chain continues.

So how is it that Liverpool are doing so well again this year, I hear you ask?

Simple: they didn’t have to compete in European competition this year thanks to Swansea and Wigan winning the domestic cup competitions. This allowed the young and relatively narrow squad to focus primarily on the English top flight—to great success.

Ironically, finishing in seventh place last season instead of fifth (where Spurs ended up) actually gave the Reds the upper hand over their London opponents this year.

In other words: United fans should now be hoping that Sunderland and a second mid-tier EPL side win the two domestic cups this season, so as for them to avoid having to enter into this damaging cycle.

In all truth, there are a lot of differences between Manchester United and the three teams previously mentioned. For one thing, none of those sides has ever won the Premier League.

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United also have more money to splash and a much wider fan base. Their reputation as a European elite is far greater and with players live Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata all in the starting XI, any wise transferee would notice a solid (UCL standard) core already exists at the club.

That said, whether you’re Manchester United or Cardiff City, having to deal with the Europa League is always more of a hindrance than it is anything else.

Unbelievably, finishing in sixth or seventh this season may prove to be a blessing in disguise for this disappointing United side.