Manchester United secured their place in the Champions League group stage last night with a convincing win that might not have Barcelona quaking in their boots, but will certainly have done plenty for the attacking confidence of the club. Not least captain Wayne Rooney, who ended his much-discussed dry spell with a hat trick.
United began the game slowly and survived a couple of early lapses in defensive concentration: Matteo Darmian let a high ball pass over his head to an unnoticed opponent, then Sergio Romero just managed to get a backpass out of his feet. But come the nineteenth minute, United's first moment of fluent attacking play resulted in the game's first goal, and effectively killed the tie.
Memphis, who seems to quite like this competition, cut inside from the left and, as the stadium braced for him to shoot, slid a reverse pass through to the unmarked Rooney. For the first time this season, the first touch of United's captain matched his reputation, and he chipped the ball over the onrushing keeper. Relief all round, though Memphis was having something of a mixed half: ten minutes after making the opener he muscled a defender out of the way to manufacture a two-on-one, then promptly fluffed his shot.
Also having a mixed half were the generally peripheral Adnan Januzaj, Ander Herrera — who looked like a man that hadn't been playing much football recently, picked up an entirely unnecessary yellow card, and at one point fell clean over — and United's back four, who as the break loomed nearly allowed the Belgians back into the tie. Daley Blind sent a header six inches past his own post, then from the resulting corner, United's defence watched an opponent flash a header just wide. Then, moments later, Abdoulay Diaby cracked United's offside trap wide open, and only Romero's quick thinking preserved the clean sheet.
Searching for greater control, Louis van Gaal replaced Januzaj with Bastian Schweinsteiger for the second period, and moved Ander Herrera forward into the no. 10 position. The move paid off almost immediately: a few minutes after the restart, Memphis and Herrera needed just two embarrassingly simple passes to delete Brugge's defence. Rooney, all on his own near the six yard box, tapped the ball home. The third was almost as simple, and a near mirror-image of the first, only this time it was Juan Mata ambling in from the other wing. He rolled a short reverse pass through the defence like a knife through a warm waffle, and Rooney poked home his third, prompting United's Twitter account to embarrass themselves:
United's captain could have had four had he managed to get another chip over the keeper — we told you he was finished — but by this point, Brugge were essentially a beaten rabble and more goals were there if anybody wanted them. Just after the hour, Ander Herrera strolled free beyond the Belgian back line, and slid in his first of the season. Whether his performance in midfield will have convinced Van Gaal remains to be seen, but he looked plenty comfortable when asked to support the attack.
As the game petered out and United's thoughts turned to Swansea City, Brugge mustered their only real moment of quality, Hans Vanakan thumping a dipping volley against the bar. It was very much the exception: Bruges is a delightful, welcoming city, and their football club made for welcoming, delightful opponents. Javier Hernandez should have added a fifth, but opted to miss first a penalty, then an open goal. His manager wasn't amused:
Still, a win's a win, and four-goal editions don't come round every day. The first major hurdle of the season has been negotiated in pleasing style, and United can move on to the competition proper.