Memphis Depay scored two memorable goals and supplied a superb injury-time assist for Marouane Fellaini to head home and give Manchester United the comfort of a 3-1 advantage from the first leg of their Champions League playoff against Club Brugge on Tuesday. United’s hopes of a place in the group stage had been put in some serious early jeopardy when an own goal from Michael Carrick gave the Belgian side a shock lead in the vital encounter at Old Trafford. But twice before halftime Depay came up with pieces of individual magic to get United back on track.
For a long time it was looking as if United would have to make do with that narrow advantage heading to Belgium. But, seeking to fulfill his first requirement of returning United to Europe’s top table after last season’s absence, his decision to throw Fellaini on for his first appearance of the season paid huge dividends against opponents that had been reduced to 10 men for the final 11 minutes.
Fellaini, serving a three-match domestic suspension, headed in Memphis’ center with the last action of the match to put United in the driving seat ahead of next Wednesday's return leg and inflict particular pain on Michel Preud’homme. The Brugge coach had taken charge of the Belgian midfielder as the pair won the Belgian title at Standard Liege in 2006, and the two embraced ahead of kickoff. But Fellaini could well have ended Brugge’s hopes of reaching the group stage for the first time in a decade.
For much of the night it appeared that Preud’homme might lead his side to a fine road result against the Premier League giants. Despite suffering from several injuries, Brugge were being rewarded for a positive, high-pressing style that contributed to an entertaining evening at Old Trafford.
Still, United’s control over proceedings grew as the match wore on, and there would have been major frustration had they been unable to get a third goal, especially as their opponents finished the match down a man following Brandon Mechele’s second yellow card. Memphis was one of the biggest culprits for United in the second half when missing a glorious chance that would have given him a hat-trick.
Still, it would be difficult to be too critical of the 21-year-old. Arriving from PSV Eindhoven after top-scoring in the Dutch Eredivisie last season, expectations were high that the Netherlands international could supply a star quality arguably lacking from the United ranks since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo. And while his first two appearances showed he remains an inconsistent work in progress, he fully demonstrated why the Old Trafford crowd has just reason to be excited about what he could deliver in the coming months and years.
He will surely be crucial in turning what has so far this season been a formulaic Manchester United attack into something more free-flowing. As in two 1-0 Premier League wins, the most impressive aspect of United’s play was once again their diligent organization and defensive resilience, led by the exceptional Chris Smalling. But there were some nervy moments in the early going.
Carrick was particularly struggling, almost playing a back-pass beyond Sergio Romero inside the first five minutes. Eight minutes in he did put past his own goalkeeper. From what was a poor free-kick struck by Victor Vazquez, Carrick stuck out a leg and diverted the ball with his shin into the back of the net. Carrick’s night would be put to a premature end by Van Gaal’s decision to replace him with Bastian Schweinsteiger at halftime, but not before he played a part in United’s recovery.
Still, his pass to Memphis 13 minutes in required the forward to show some delightful skill to get the ball under his control. From there he showed more fine touches, cutting in on his right foot past two defenders before producing a composed finish. His second goal for the club and of the night 30 minutes later was arguably even better. The pass into him from Daley Blind was crisp, and again Memphis instantly looked to work it onto his favored foot, this time hitting an even quicker shot from the edge of the box that curled into the far corner.
United were more assured after the interval, helped by the experienced presence of Schweinsteiger. And the star of the show should have had a third goal. With United’s best move of the match, Luke Shaw found Wayne Rooney in the box, who, with one of his few positive touches in the whole 90 minutes, flicked the ball back perfectly for Memphis, but his shot this time cleared the crossbar.
It appeared United would have to make do with just a single-goal advantage, only for Fellaini to continue to show that while he may be unorthodox, he remains a valuable contributor for Van Gaal’s men.