BRUGES, Belgium: Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal praised Wayne Rooney’s “mentality” after the captain’s hat-trick in a 4-0 win against Club Brugge helped his side secure a Champions League place.
United will go into the hat in Thursday’s group-stage draw after their victory in Bruges on Wednesday completed a 7-1 aggregate win in the competition’s play-off round.
Rooney had previously gone 10 club games without scoring, prompting suggestions he was unsuited to the role of lone striker in Van Gaal’s single-striker system, but the Dutchman said he never doubted that the England captain would rediscover the path to goal.
“I have given him always the confidence that a player needs, but I think Wayne has a very strong mentality and with his level he always shall come back,” Van Gaal said.
“And he proved that this evening (Wednesday). But still it’s a long way for him and also for Manchester United it’s not so easy. Of course I’m very happy for him.”
All three of Rooney’s goals were pleasing on the eye, as he applied assured one-touch finishes to passes from Memphis Depay, Ander Herrera and Juan Mata.
Herrera stroked in United’s fourth goal in the 63rd minute at Jan Breydel Stadium, having been moved forward into a number 10 role following the half-time introduction of Bastian Schweinsteiger.
Herrera had struggled in the game’s early stages, misplacing passes and earning a booking for an untidy foul on Victor Vazquez, and Van Gaal admitted afterwards that he had contemplated taking him off.
“He started not so good. He had a lot of ball losses and also a yellow card, so at that moment I wanted to change him, but then I saw he was coming back,” said Van Gaal, who also saw substitute Javier Hernandez miss a late penalty.
“And after that moment he plays a good match on the ‘double six’ position, but later on (at) 10 he was better. So I’m very pleased also for him.”
Van Gaal won the Champions League with an exciting young Ajax team in 1995 and took Bayern Munich to the final in 2010, but he has not led a team in the competition since 2011.
‘They have everything’
Asked how the tournament had changed during his absence, he replied: “I cannot judge because (for) three years I was not a participant.
“Of course I’ve seen the matches on television. I think it is the highest podium, and it was also 10 years ago and 20 years ago.
“It is the highest podium that you can show yourself or your team and it’s fantastic to be a participant.”
The 2014-15 season was the first time United had not graced the Champions League in 19 years, the legacy of a disastrous seventh-place finish under Van Gaal’s hapless predecessor David Moyes.
Holders Barcelona, Bayern, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain are among the teams who could be drawn to face United, but Van Gaal said that he would not be watching the draw.
“I don’t know the teams who are participating, but I think I cannot have any influence on the draw,” he said.
“There was also a lady who asked me what am I going to do tomorrow (Thursday) during the draw. I said I shall watch the second team against Ajax because that’s more important for me.
“I cannot influence the draw, so it’s better to hear afterwards.”
Club Brugge coach Michel Preud’homme had said before the game that his side required a “miracle” to qualify and he felt that the outcome of the tie was logical.
“This team has everything — technical quality, physical quality in power and endurance, and of course they have the mentality,” said the former Belgium goalkeeper, who was missing several key players through injury and suspension.
“It’s a top team and they are top players. They have everything. We are there to learn something and I hope we can learn a lot from these two confrontations.”