A resilient Manchester United overcame an early setback to triumph 3-1 over Club Brugge in the first-leg of their UEFA Champions League play-off, largely thanks to a Memphis Depay brace.
The Belgian outfit coordinated a highly defensive playing style, with van Gaal’s Red Devils, who were playing in the competition for the first time since April 2014, left frustrated for the majority of the match at Old Trafford.
The Blauw-Zwart even took a surprise early lead when Victor Vazquez’s low free-kick struck the flailing foot of Michael Carrick, wrong-footing United goalkeeper Sergio Romero as he could only haplessly watch the ball hit the back of the Stretford End net.
After being credited with the own goal, Carrick set out to make amends, with a speculative 25-yard pass finding Memphis Depay.
The Dutch winger, who arrived in the summer from PSV Eindhoven, flicked the ball over the Brugge defence, drove inside, and coolly slotted the ball into the far hand corner for his first United goal.
A slow start to the season has seen Wayne Rooney come under criticism in both the media and on social networks, and his foul throw just after a quarter of an hour will only have added fuel to the fire.
Whilst United dominated the early proceedings, they were nearly behind again when Dion Cools found space for himself during a Brugge corner routine, but his volley was caught by Romero.
Van Gaal’s men were in danger soon after, with a whipped Brugge cross escaping the gloves of Romero, but thankfully for United, also everyone in a blue and black shirt.
Heeding this warning, United set out to take ahold of the tie. Memphis went close on two other occasions, before eventually rocketing a right foot shot into the far top hand corner following a defence-splitting pass from makeshift centre back Daley Blind.
United were expectedly the better of the two sides, and their dominance continued to shine through in the second half.
Depay nearly grabbed a hat-trick on several occasions – the first came in the 51st minute when his effort from distance was pushed aside by Sebastien Bruzzese.
The Dutchman later hit a 30-yard free kick just wide of Bruzzese’s goal, and narrowly blazed over a well worked counter attack, as Luke Shaw’s cross was flicked on by Wayne Rooney to Depay.
With 10 minutes to go, Brugge defender Brandon Mechele earned a second yellow card by bringing down substitute Javier Hernandez.
The extra man eventually proved crucial, as Marouane Fellaini, who had come on for Rooney, headed in a third deep into stoppage time – man-of-the-moment Depay bagging the assist with a curling cross.
Michel Preud’homme’s Brugge will feel the result was a fair one, but will be disappointed to conceded a third, while van Gaal will be delighted to grab a late goal but concerned about certain areas of his side – especially in the final third.
The duo face off in the second-leg next Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League.
Man of the Match: Memphis Depay