Wayne Rooney scored a superb hat-trick as Manchester United beat Club Brugge 4-0 (7-1) in the second leg of their Champions League qualifier on Wednesday night. Ander Herrera grabbed the other as United returned to the group stages of Europe’s elite competition for the first time since the 2013/14 season.
On a damp and drizzly night in Bruges, what could have been a tricky and tight affair proved anything but as United outclassed their Belgian opposition in every department. Wayne Rooney returned to his goalscoring self in emphatic style, first finishing a Memphis through ball in the 20th minute, before adding his second in the 49th after a brilliant team move ended in Ander Herrera squaring the ball back across the face of goal to give the United and England captain a simple tap-in. Rooney completed his treble in the 57th minute when a delightful ball from Juan Mata split open the Brugge defence and, without hesitation, was dispatched into the bottom corner of the net.
Ander Herrera marked his return to the side with a goal in the 63rd minute, latching onto an inch-perfect pass from Bastian Schweinsteiger to finish coolly from 12 yards. Javier Hernandez missed a penalty late on in the game, putting his spot-kick wide of the goal after slipping when making contact with the ball. He arguably missed an even better chance in the 90th minute, blazing the ball high over the crossbar from a few yards out after good work down the right from Ashley Young. At first glance, it seemed easier to find the net than find the crowd, and the Mexican will undoubtedly be extremely disappointed that he hasn’t yet marked his return to United with a goal.
United were impressive tonight, especially going forward. A side that has only scored twice in the Premier League so far, a lot of confidence will be taken from a game which in truth could have ended six or seven nil. Memphis again showed what a crucial player he could be for United this season, and the link-up play between the Dutchman, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Rooney was just too hot for the Brugge defence to handle. Make no mistake, United will have to improve domestically, the failure to defeat a poor Newcastle side at Old Trafford on Saturday shows the steps they still need to take in order to bridge the gap on Chelsea and Manchester City. Brugge were poor, but the way in which United dispatched them was highly promising. United have been on the wrong side of a Champions League upset before. A 2-1 defeat to Swiss side Basel in December 2011 knocked the Manchester club out of the competition at the group stages, something they will not want repeated this time around considering they have qualified so convincingly. Brugge were still capable of upsetting the odds, but United stuck to their game plan and dominated pretty much from start to finish.
Wayne Rooney ending his worst goal drought in seven years will only help to ease the so-called ‘forward crisis’ at Old Trafford, and the way the back four and keeper Sergio Romero are playing at the moment suggests that no major transfers are needed in that department. Four clean sheets out of five so far in all competitions is close to perfection, so why change something that seems to be working? It is likely that Van Gaal will stick with this defence, a defence that has already served him so well this season, and with Wayne Rooney back among the goals, it makes you wonder whether the Dutchman will dip back into the transfer market at all before it closes next Tuesday.
The feeling around Old Trafford is that United still need a couple of world class players in order to compete for the biggest trophies. Whether United are good enough to mount a serious title challenge in the Premier League remains to be seen, and as far as Europe is concerned, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League would be an extraordinary achievement. With the size and history of the club, anything less than silverware is considered a huge disappointment. United have gone over two years without a trophy now, and everyone involved with the club will be hoping and expecting that drought to come to an end this season. Only time will tell. What is certain, however, is that Manchester United will be back in Europe’s elite competition after an 18-month absence. Champions League nights will be returning to Old Trafford.