A revitalised Wayne Rooney answers critics with a hat-trick against Club Brugge
There was a spell early in the second half here, as red shirts swarmed through tired opponents, when this Manchester United team looked like a Red Devils team of old.
Against, it must be said, very modest opposition, United scored three goals within 14 minutes and could have had double that. They created as many chances in that spell as they have done all season and all the stodginess that has crept into their game under Louis van Gaal appeared to melt away.
Van Gaal had admitted beforehand that United need to be better on the ball but here, as they set about Brugge, they had some of that old ambition and swagger that has drifted out of their game.
At the point of it all was Wayne Rooney, who scored his first European hat-trick since his United debut against Fenerbahce in 2004, to end his 878-minute goal drought. He looked sharper and livelier than he has done in months.
His last treble for United came almost four years ago, when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge and Paul Scholes was enjoying his first retirement.
That United team were champions of England, and while this side may well not be quite on that level yet, this was certainly one of the more confident and accomplished European displays of the post-Ferguson era.
All of this must be caveated, of course, by the paucity of the Belgian opposition. Brugge worked hard in the first half but had nothing left to give in the second, and this scoreline, 4-0 on the night, 7-1 on aggregate, flatters them excessively.
But you can only play the opposition in front of you and last night United compellingly played their way into the Champions League group stage, and may have even played their way into form.
Not every team would want this tie, interfering with the start of a Premier League campaign, but for United it almost felt useful. Not just because a club of their size need to be playing in the Champions League group stage, but because United, at the start of Van Gaal's second season, are a work in progress.
Anyone who has seen United's first three Premier League matches knows that they have issues to resolve on the pitch, when it comes to creating and taking chances.
The fact that even Van Gaal conceded in his pre-match press conference that United "have to improve with the ball" shows how far they are from his own standards.
This first half, out on a wet pitch, was a test of whether United could play in the way demanded of them.
Van Gaal brought Ander Herrera in for his first start of the season, but he struggled to find his rhythm, mishitting passes and eventually taking his frustration out on the shins of Victor Vazquez, for which he was booked. When Herrera got into a shooting position, later in the first half, he hit the second tier of the stand.
United had steady possession but they needed someone to take the initiative. That is what they have lacked and it was Memphis Depay, the big money 21-year-old, who stood up.
Cutting in from the left, Depay burst away from two defenders, dummying to shoot, shrugging off a shirt-pull. Rather than going for goal, he slipped the ball to Rooney, who finished calmly.
Brugge, realising the severity of their situation, raised themselves for the end of the first half and nearly dragged themselves level on the night. Claudemir headed wide, Davy de Fauw flicked one across the box and Adboulay Diaby should have done better when through on goal, running into Sergio Romero.
Hoping to secure the game, Van Gaal withdrew the subdued Adnan Janujaz for Bastian Schweinsteiger at the interval, buttressing United's experience in the middle.
The move also pushed Herrera further forward, prompting the incisive combination that killed the tie.
Depay, growing in confidence, burst forward and slid a pass to Herrera, now free to run into the box. Rather than shoot, he squared selflessly to Rooney, who converted.
This was a different United, as well as a different Rooney, and their football started to reach a new level of fluency, slicing through tired opponents.
One counter-attack involved Rooney, then Herrera, then Juan Mata, only for the final pass to be just beyond Depay.
Brugge were finished, though, and United set about them with an ambitious ruthlessness.
Rooney completed his hat-trick when he ran on to Mata's clever little pass and finished gleefully into the bottom corner. He soon could have scored a fourth, chipping just wide when through on goal.
United, still pushing, did soon score again though, through Herrera, a player transformed in the second half. Schweinsteiger drove a pass through the Brugge defence and the Spaniard bounded on to it, slotting the ball into the bottom corner and charging away to celebrate below the travelling fans.
The one man who did not emerge from this game with confidence reignited was Javier Hernandez, who came on with 25 minutes to go and then found increasingly imaginative ways to avoid scoring.
His first chance he headed wide at the far post, before he stepped up to take a penalty kick which he sliced wide having slipped.
Finally, in the last minute, he met Ashley Young's cross in front of an open goal but put the ball over the bar. He may still need some more work.
club brugge 0
united won 7-1 on aggregate
CLUB BRUGGE: Bolat, Castelletto, De Fauw, Duarte, De Bock, Claudemir, Diaby (Dierckx 63), Vormer, Vázquez (Vanaken 62), Bolingoli Mbombo (Cools 77), De Sutter.
Subs not used: Bruzzese, Meunier, Desmul, Oularé.
MAN UNITED: Romero, Darmian, Smalling, Blind, Shaw, Carrick, Herrera (Hernandez 64), Mata (Young 62), Januzaj (Schweinsteiger 45), Depay, Rooney.
Subs not used: Fellaini, Schneiderlin, McNair, Johnstone.
Goals: Rooney 20, 49, 57, Herrera 63
Man of the match: Rooney (pictured)
Referee: Antonio Lahoz