Wayne Rooney ended his scoring drought in some style by firing a superb hat-trick to emphatically confirm Manchester United’s place in the Champions League group stage. Rooney’s three confident finishes, which belied his scoreless struggles so far this season, added to by a similarly composed finish from Ander Herrera, gave United a 4-0 win at Club Brugge and a 7-1 aggregate victory to ensure their painful absence from Europe’s lucrative top table will be for just a single season.
For both Rooney and his manager Louis van Gaal it was the perfect way to answer doubters about whether United have enough quality up front without making a major splash in the final week of the transfer window. Rooney, lackluster and unthreatening up front in his first four games of the season, showed a clinical touch to finish Memphis’ pass 20 minutes in and put the visitors to the Jan Breydel Stadium in command.
Club Brugge manager Michel Preud’homme had said before the contest that his side required a “miracle” following Marouane Fellaini’s injury-time header at Old Trafford last week. Still, they had flickers of life before a 15-minute spell early in the second half killed off the tie with more goals than United have scored in three full Premier League games this season. First Rooney completed his hat-trick with two quick fire efforts after being found by Herrera and then Juan Mata.
Herrera then added a fourth as Brugge’s resistance evaporated spectacularly. The Spaniard had struggled alongside Michael Carrick in the opening half of what was his first start of the season, but, moved further forward at the start of the second, he may have done enough to put himself into Van Gaal’s future thoughts. It is Rooney, though, who will grab the headlines with a performance that, despite Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez missing a penalty late on, may -- rightly or wrongly -- go some way to convincing Van Gaal’s that his forward options are sufficient to compete in both the Premier League and Champions League.
Against a Club Brugge side still decimated by injuries, United appeared in control for long spells of the first half. As the hosts sat back, Van Gaal’s men stroked the ball around to provoke plenty of frustration from the home crowd. And those feelings only became more evident when the visitors took the lead on the night, extending their aggregate advantage to 4-1. Following on from his two goals and an assist at Old Trafford, it was again Memphis who provided the initial inspiration.
As so often last week, Memphis was allowed to cut in to dangerous effect from the left, but this time, rather than shoot, he picked out a wonderfully disguised pass to play in Rooney, who didn’t disappoint with a confident dinked finish.
That should have been game over, but there was a lack of composure from United for the rest of the opening period. A defense that had been the shining light of United’s early season performances suddenly looked shaky. And a better team than Brugge would have taken advantage. With Daley Blind especially vulnerable, Tom de Sutter and Abdoulay Diaby, among others, failed to show a clinical touch having got a clear sight of Sergio Romero’s goal.
Van Gaal, surely in response to how exposed his defense had been, made a move to shore up the team at the break when bringing on Bastian Schweinsteiger for Adnan Januzaj. The change did stem Brugge’s threat, but, with Herrera showing his influential energy driving forward, it also provided the base for United to go on and ensure they’ll be in Thursday’s group stage draw.
Just four minutes into the second half Memphis and Herrera both produced incisive passes to give Rooney a simple chance for his second. And eight minutes later Rooney had his hat-trick thanks to Mata, from the opposite flank, replicating Memphis’ opening assist. Played through by Schweinsteiger’s pass that cut Brugge’s defense wide open, Herrera soon had the fourth.
It could and should have been more. And Hernandez’s slip and missed penalty together with an equally golden chance to open his season account from inside the six-yard box in the final minute failed to do the Mexican’s still uncertain prospects at Old Trafford any favors.