After a year in the wilderness for Manchester United – and a one-season exile from Europe’s top club competition – failure to qualify for the Champions League was unthinkable.
Following a double from Memphis Depay and at 2-1 up against Club Brugge, who were playing the final 10 minutes with 10 men, United were arguably deserving of a bigger lead to take to Belgium until Marouane Fellaini returned to the first team fold with a priceless last-gasp header.
Cue a relieved manager Louis van Gaal as his side look forward to hosting Newcastle United on Saturday (12:45pm) before heading to Brugge for the return leg next Wednesday.
“It (Fellaini’s goal) makes a difference because 2-1 is a very difficult result. We deserved much more because we created a lot of chances,” said Van Gaal.
“There was a lot of criticism [beforehand] that we never shoot on goal and we do not create chances. Now, you can see we created a lot of chances.
“As I always say, you have to be effective and sometimes with three chances you have two goals. Now we have a lot of chances and three goals.”
For all their dominance however it took the aerial threat of Fellaini – who replaced the ineffective Wayne Rooney after 84 minutes – to unlock the Brugge defence for a third, and most important, time.
“We practised that [move] before and when we need him [Fellaini] we put him in the 16-metre area,” added Van Gaal.
“He has that quality and he has done that a lot of times with me, so I am very happy with him.”
If Van Gaal was happy with Fellaini he was in more amorous mood with fellow Dutchman Depay, who also produced a mesmerising pin point cross for Fellaini to head home at the death.
In fact Depay produced an inspirational match-winning performance and rescued United from a potentially bleak situation after an early Michael Carrick own goal sent shockwaves around Old Trafford, much to the delight off the travelling Belgian contingent.
Then the former PSV man took centre stage with two individual moments of brilliance which warranted United’s 2-1 lead at half time.
Brugge defender Brandon Mechele was sent off for two bookings after 80 minutes as United looked to use their one-man advantage, which they just about did thanks to Depay.
“I had said it is a matter of time and it was a matter of time. Hopefully he shall continue, but it is also difficult for him,” said Van Gaal.
“He is 21 and has only played two seasons for PSV. But I have confidence in him.
“I want to kiss him tonight.”
After enduring a barren spell with the famous no.7 jersey, United fans will hope that Depay relishes the challenge of wearing the illustrious shirt.
Following in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, George Best, Eric Cantona and David Beckham is a daunting challenge but early signs suggest that Depay has the temperament, desire and ability to go down in United folklore unlike previous owners Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Angel Di Maria.
After three consecutive victories and a stark contrast to Van Gaal’s disastrous debut season start, United are slowly building momentum.
Image courtesy of MUTV via YouTube, with thanks.