Manchester United had double reason to celebrate on Wednesday — the team is back in the Champions League group stage and star striker Wayne Rooney is scoring again.
Rooney ended a drought of 10 games without a goal stretching back to April 4 with a hat trick in United’s 4-0 win at Bruges, helping the English club to a 7-1 victory on aggregate.
While the Champions League welcomed back one of the continent’s biggest names and a three-time European champion, a club with a very different pedigree also advanced.
Formed six years ago and in just its third season in European competition, FC Astana became the first team from Kazakhstan to qualify for the group stage after drawing 1-1 at APOEL Nicosia for a 2-1 aggregate win.
Nemanja Maksimovic’s goal in the 84th proved decisive for Astana, a team backed by Kazkahstan’s sovereign-wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna and the most remote of all the clubs in the group stage.
Others teams to qualify for Thursday’s group-stage draw were Bayer Leverkusen, CSKA Moscow and BATE Borisov of Belarus.
Leverkusen beat Lazio 3-0 to advance 3-1 on aggregate and leave Italy with only two teams in the Champions League again. An 85th-minute goal from Ahmed Musa clinched CSKA Moscow a 3-1 win over Sporting Lisbon and a 4-3 victory on aggregate, while BATE advanced on away goals after losing 2-1 at Partizan Belgrade for 2-2 overall.
United missed out on the Champions League last season as a consequence of its dreadful season in 2013-14 under David Moyes, the successor to long-time manager Alex Ferguson.
Louis van Gaal has managed to restore England’s most successful club to Europe’s top competition at the first attempt — albeit through the playoffs — as Bruges proved a soft touch on Wednesday.
Rooney ended a wait of 878 minutes for a United goal — and silenced some of his critics in the process — by scoring in the 20th minute with deft finish over the goalkeeper from close range, and added more in the 49th and 57th minutes as his confidence grew and Bruges’ defense opened up.
Unlike in the Premier League this season, the supply line to Rooney was constant at Jan Breydelstadion and he could have finished the game with five or six goals.
“To be honest, if I didn’t have a strong character, maybe it would have affected me,” Rooney said of his poor scoring form. “I wasn’t worried. It is early days and when the chances came I took them.”
Rooney squandered a one-on-one chance and also passed penalty-taking duties to Javier Hernandez for a spot kick that United earned from a handball in the 81st minute. Hernandez’s standing foot slipped and he sent the ball wide of the post.
By then, Ander Herrera had put United 4-0 ahead.