BRUGES (Belgium) • Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal praised Wayne Rooney's "mentality" after the captain's hat-trick in a 4-0 victory over Club Brugge on Wednesday helped his side secure a Champions League place.
A 7-1 aggregate win in the play-off round secured United's return to Europe's elite club competition following a one-year absence.
Rooney had previously gone 144 days without scoring, including United's opening four games in all competitions this season, despite playing as the club's main striker.
His form prompted suggestions that he was unsuited to the role of the lone hitman 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," said van Gaal. "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."
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.
Rooney said that recent criticism of his form had not affected him.
"I'm delighted to have got the goals and, more importantly, it was a massive game for the club," he told BT Sport after his first treble in almost four years. "To be honest, if I didn't have a strong character, that (the criticism) might have affected me. I wasn't worried. It is early days and when the chances came, I took them."
If relief was on display, so too some overdue evidence that the 29-year-old striker retains an acute predatory instinct.
For United as a whole, there were signs of what they are capable of when they attack with speed, panache and conviction that has been seen too rarely under van Gaal.
Yet, the manager's belief that he does not need to sign a centre-forward before the close of the transfer window on Tuesday still looks a gamble, particularly considering how unconvincing the support cast looks.
Substitute Javier Hernandez missed a penalty and an open goal. But if Rooney can maintain this sort of form and continue to hone his understanding with Depay, United will be a threat.
Herrera, who looked short of match sharpness, stroked in United's fourth goal in the 63rd minute at the Jan Breydel Stadium.
The Champions League group stage, however, will bring far tougher challenges than a depleted side that finished second in Belgium last season.
Asked how far United can go in the competition, van Gaal said: "We have to wait and see. Of course, this was a glorious night for Manchester United and it is not so easy to do what we have done but Swansea City (on Sunday) is the most important match now. Last year we lost six points against them and we have to improve (on) that."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN