Eric Gerets had compared Liverpool to Duracell bunnies on their arrival in Marseille and last night he discovered who still beats the drum for Rafael Benítez's team in the Champions League. Steven Gerrard delivered the 98th and 99th goals of his Liverpool career, his latest inspired European display sparing his club a torrid ordeal and reaffirming that belief, not batteries, fuels their powers of recovery.
England's thumping win in Croatia six days earlier may have raised fresh questions over Gerrard's place and position in that team but the debate is as irrelevant as the captain is indispensable at Liverpool. Two goals at the Stade Vélodrome, less than three weeks after undergoing double groin surgery, ensured a perfect start for last season's semi-finalists. It was an invaluable contribution on a night when the profligacy of Geret's team and the reactions of José Reina kept Liverpool's unbeaten run intact and ensured a third 2-1 win in five matches - after falling behind in all three.
"I am angry because it is incredible to lose a game like that after having so many chances," said Gerets. "But Gerrard's first goal was fantastic. There are not many players who can score such a goal. He is a world-class player." But for the lack of a player with Gerrard's composure, vision and penetration, the Belgian might well have been savouring his second victory over Liverpool in 11 months.
Benítez's decision to start Gerrard for the first time since his operation at the end of August, and Fernando Torres for the first time since tearing a hamstring at Aston Villa 16 days previously, illustrated his determination not to repeat last season's poor start, when one point from nine turned the pressure on the manager and his resources.
As in the corresponding 4-0 win here last December, Gerrard ran the show for Liverpool and revelled in his freedom behind Torres, although Marseille were a vast improvement on the side that wilted in that fixture. Still, the Reds rediscovered the route to Steve Mandanda's goal, with Torres and Gerrard forcing the goalkeeper into early saves and Ryan Babel squandering a glorious chance when he blazed over from 12 yards.
Attack was not the problem for Liverpool. Their static defence, however, invited the punishment that came from a swift move from Marseille midway through the first half, and Benítez did not spare them criticism afterwards. Modeste M'bami, a fitting description for his supposed man-marking of Gerrard, and Benoît Cheyrou, brother of the former Anfield squad player Bruno, sent Lorik Cana clear of the offside trap and the Marseille captain produced an accomplished finish beneath Reina.
The breakthrough was the cue for Led Zeppelin's Kashmir to sound and a flare to soar into the Mediterranean sky. But the smoke had not cleared by the time Gerrard drew Liverpool level in imperious fashion. Torres mugged M'bami in the centre circle, opened the defence and found Dirk Kuyt lurking on the right. Gerrard barely looked up when the industrious Dutchman's lay-off rolled across the area but, from 20 yards, swept a glorious, arcing finish into the far corner of the stranded Mandanda's net.
Liverpool added to Marseille's insecurities with a penalty given away by Ronald Zubar. The centre-half first missed Jamie Carragher's long ball out of defence, enabling Babel to collect, then stuck out a needless leg which sent the forward tumbling in the area. Gerrard converted the spot-kick off the inside of a post and then, having been ordered to retake because of encroachment, sent Mandanda the wrong way again with a more emphatic finish.
Marseille dominated possession in the second half but Liverpool's defence improved, as they had to, while Babel was unable to cap a fine display by converting one of several clear chances. Even so the home side should have profited, with the substitute Karim Ziani and striker Mamadou Niang wasting two excellent chances apiece in a fraught finale.
"Coming from behind to win three times means our mentality is good but that we have to improve in defence," said Benítez. "I am not worried about the defence because that can improve. It is easier to improve your defending because it is just repeat and repeat, whereas in attack it is the quality of individuals that's important." And, as Gerrard's manager, he should know.
Marseille 1 – 2 (HT 1 – 2) Liverpool
Gerrard (pen) 32
Bookings Zubar 31
Marseille's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 6 60% 4 40%
Goal attempts 12 63% 7 37%
On target 5 71% 2 29%
Fouls 9 32% 19 68%
Offside 2 66% 1 34%
Marseille Steve Mandanda, Laurent Bonnart, Ronald Zubar, Vitorino da Silva Hilton, Taye Taiwo, Lorik Cana, Benoit Cheyrou, Modeste M'Bami (Matthieu Valbuena, 41), Bakary Kone (Mamadou Samassa, 75), Hatem Ben Arfa (Karim Ziani, 57), Mamadou Niang
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Martin Skrtel, Jamie Carragher, Andrea Dossena, Steven Gerrard (Yossi Benayoun, 69), Javier Mascherano, Lucas Leiva, Dirk Kuyt (Robbie Keane, 86), Fernando Torres (Albert Riera, 65), Ryan Babel
Referee Plautz, K
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