Ultimately, it came down to fine margins. Manchester United have lost their Barclays Premier League title by a point. That record 19th English championship remains out of reach for now.
At Old Trafford the analysis has already begun. Two defeats by newly crowned champions Chelsea, neither particularly deserved. An away loss at Burnley that included a missed penalty.
An early-season injury crisis that left them playing at Fulham with barely a fit defender. If you look hard enough, the bad luck stories and the days of injustice are there. But they always are. Every season. At any club. Nothing goes to plan all of the time. What is clear to objective observers is that United have not been good enough this season. Not quite.
Wayne pain: Rooney limped off injured against Stoke
They do not deserve to have the Premier League title any more. Thisseason has seen standards drop at England's largest club. It hasbeen marginal.
Sometimes it has been disguised by the excellence of players likeRyan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Nani and, of course, the peerless WayneRooney. Nevertheless, the signs were there from the outset.
With Cristiano Ronaldo gone and sorely missed, regular Unitedwatchers noticed it as soon as the season began. United have not beenas good this time. Neither have Chelsea, while Liverpool, last season'schallengers, have simply disappeared.
This is largely why United have hung on so long. This and their ownbloodymindedness, of course. The manner in which United have recoveredfrom a week that saw them lose to Chelsea, Bayern Munich and then drawat Blackburn has been impressive.
Sir Alex Ferguson's team won at Manchester City and Sunderland andat home to Tottenham and now Stoke City to force Chelsea all the wayto the line. When it comes to sheer obduracy and force of will, nobodydoes it better than United.
Yet they must improve next season. As Ferguson noted on Friday,other teams Chelsea, Tottenham and City will grow stronger over thesummer. They will invest in players. United must do likewise.
On target: Darren Fletcher scores the opening goal of the game at Old Trafford
It has been telling that as United's need has grown more intenseover the closing weeks, so has Ferguson's reliance on his old guard.Paul Scholes and Giggs, for example, have played the final seven leaguegames while Gary Neville has started five.
Those statistics say much for the remarkable longevity of thesethree marvellous players.
MATCH FACTSMANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2):Van der Sar 7; Neville 6, Ferdinand 6, Vidic 6, Evra 6; Nani 7, Scholes 7 (Gibson 62min, 6), Fletcher 6, Giggs 7; Berbatov 7 (Macheda 62, 6), Rooney 6 (Park 77).Booked: Vidic, Scholes.
STOKE CITY (4-4-2): Begovic 6; Wilkinson 6, Shawcross 6, Huth 6, Higginbotham 6 (Collins 66, 6); Delap 6, Whitehead 5 (Diao 66, 5), Whelan 5, Etherington 5; Sidibe 5 (Pugh 66, 5), Fuller 5.
Man of the match: Ryan Giggs.
Referee: Mark Clattenburg.
They will be back to serve their one and onlyclub next season.
However, a reliance on the trio also says much aboutthe failings of those bought to replace the veterans.
As the stakes grew higher in the wake of the numbing disappointmentagainst Bayern, Michael Carrick and Ji-sung Park, two socalled big-nameplayers, have been left largely on their backsides.
Stroll in the park: Giggs scores United's second en route to a comfortable 4-0 win
Goalkeeper Ben Foster, meanwhile, has talked of moving on,£30million striker Dimitar Berbatov has scored just 12 league goalswhile the Brazilian Anderson had already run home to Brazil for a weekin a fit of January pique before a subsequent knee injury ended hisineffectual season. None of this suggests that United find themselvesin a crisis, of course.
They are the second best team in a competitive Premier League andthere is no shame in that. But it does suggest Ferguson has work to dobefore the next campaign. Some of his young players Nani, DarronGibson and Antonio Valencia have taken steps forward.
United we stand: The Old Trafford fans vented their anger at the Glazers throughout
Others have not. Yesterday, United were on something of a hiding tonothing as soon as news filtered through of an early Chelsea goal atStamford Bridge. The mood outside the ground had been ugly beforehandas a carefully planned protest against the Glazer family got out ofcontrol.
Inside, meanwhile, things were a little sombre as it became clearthat United's title was lost. To their credit, Ferguson's playersresponded in the right way. Chelsea may have ended up with eightyesterday but United did their damndest to keep up for a while.
They began quietly as Stoke, organised and busy, kept the home teamat bay reasonably easily. Berbatov, so wasteful in the win atSunderland a week earlier, headed over two presentable chances whileDanny Higginbotham's tackle on Evra prevented the French defender fromscoring.
On the Paul: Scholes vies for the ball with Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross
United broke through with a scrambled goal from Darren Fletcher inthe 31st minute and from that point there was not much doubt about theresult. The goal eased them into a rhythm and they played attractivefootball.
The second goal was a fine one as Berbatov ran down the leftand crossed square for
Giggs to run in and score first time with hisleft instep.
With Chelsea coasting against 10 men by the interval, United's racewas run. But they emerged to score two more goals in the second halfand they deserve some credit for that.
Rooney, relatively quiet on theday, inconvenienced Stoke's defence in the 54th minute to panicHigginbotham into an own goal before Park arrived as a substitute tohead in the fourth at the far post.
Heartbreak: despite beating Stoke, United have missed out on the Premier League title by one point
Stoke, hitherto passive as an attacking threat, rallied late in thegame and Edwin van der Sar produced two decent saves. But by full timethe mood was a little peculiar and after a brief word from Ferguson tothe crowd, the day was done. United are second. Deservedly so.
Reds' YearUnited feel the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid early in the season, crashing to an embarrasing 1-0 defeat at Burnley in their second game.Michael Owen scores a 96th-minute winner against Man City in a rollercoaster derby. That 4-3 home win was the mid-point of a brilliant 13-match unbeaten run.Liverpool, Chelsea, Villa and Fulham all beat United in a six-week period as Fergie suffers an awful autumn.League One Leeds subject their bitter rivals to a humiliating defeat at Old Trafford in the FA Cup.Fans are left asking 'Cristiano who?' as Wayne Rooney scores 17 goals between December and March.Didier Drogba fires Chelsea to a crucial 2-1 win at Old Trafford in April the decisive moment in a thrilling title race. Not so Blue anymore: Chelsea coronation ends 'a hard three years' of Premier League heartbreak, admits John TerryFor all the final day Premier League news For all the up-to-date Premier League scores and stats Manchester United boss plays down Wayne Rooney injury fears after England star limps off. againAngry United fans protest against Glazers before end of season finaleMANCHESTER UNITED