Wayne Rooney scored a hat-trick as Manchester United qualified for the Champions League group stages in style by beating Club Brugge 4-0 in the second leg of their playoff tie.
The early stages of the game largely passed without incident but Luke Shaw did well to block Tom de Sutter’s goal bound volley. Rooney eventually opening the scoring by chipping over the keeper 20 minutes in thanks to a lovely run and pass from Memphis Depay. The Dutchman then found himself through on goal after shrugging off a Brugge defender but he took too long on the ball and the chance went begging.
Brugge worked hard despite the unfavourable odds and Abdoulay Diaby and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo were both brilliantly denied by Sergio Romero when clean through just before half-time.
It took United just three and a half minutes to score a second following the interval, with Memphis and Ander Herrera involved in a wonderful exchange of passes before Rooney tapped home. United looked comfortable from then on and Rooney completed his hat-trick minutes later when put through by a clever through ball by Juan Mata. Brugge’s confidence was shot and Herrera added a fourth before Javier Hernandez missed a penalty late on.
Rooney has been the subject of fierce criticism following some poor displays this term and his hat-trick against Brugge would have done his confidence the world of good. He had not scored in 878 minutes in all competitions previously.
The old cliche goes that once a striker ends a goal drought, the floodgates open and that was certainly the case in Belgium. His critics may have been silenced for one night but grumbles will re-emerge if Rooney fails to deliver the goods against Swansea City next time out.
The Spaniard was handed his first start of the season by van Gaal and it was clear that he was feeling the pressure to impress, at least in the opening exchanges. Herrera lost the ball a few times and picked up a careless booking for bringing down Victor Vazquez after 13 minutes.
It set the tone for a nervy first 45 minutes from Herrera, who looked slightly off the pace. However, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s introduction at half-time changed Herrera’s role in the game for the better. Herrera was given much more freedom to express himself and his wonderful threaded ball to Rooney led to United’s second goal. He then scored himself with a calm finish just before coming off for Hernandez.
It is clear Herrera has much more impact on a match when allowed to go forward but van Gaal currently appears to prefer two holding midfielders in his side. His long-term place in the starting XI remains in doubt despite his positive second-half display.
Shaw has been superb so far this season and he continued his excellent form against Brugge. The youngster’s tireless running up and down the left flank caused constant problems for the Belgian side and it was fantastic to watch.
Shaw spent time in Dubai with Adnan Januzaj this summer to work on his fitness and it certainly showed in the Jan Breydel stadium. On a number of occasions, the 20-year-old shrugged off a Brugge player with ease before bursting forward with pace. Shaw really is looking like the player United fans thought he would be when he was signed last summer and the hope is that injury doesn’t derail his momentum like it did so often last term.
Granted, Brugge did not provide the sternest of opposition but United can only beat what’s in front of them and they ripped their Belgian opponents apart on Wednesday night. Time after time United got through and the game could have quite easily finished up with a cricket score.
Van Gaal will be keen for his side to replicate the attacking display in the Premier League as they have looked insipid and predictable in domestic competition up until this point.
European football is well and truly back
Spending two years out of the Champions League would have been disastrous for United. Fortunately, van Gaal’s side did the job against Brugge and supporters can now look forward to seeing Europe’s best back at Old Trafford.
How far United can progress in the competition, however, remains to be seen. This will be largely dependent on who the club brings in between now and the end of the transfer window, with a world-class striker still high on the agenda despite Rooney’s exploits. Regardless, it will be good to have European nights back in the calendar this season.