This weekend marks the tenth anniversary since a skinny 18-year-old by the name of Steven George Gerrard made his debut for Liverpool. It was an 'I-was-there' moment for Liverpool supporters and, for the umpteenth time, they were given an example last night of the greatness that has followed those first tentative steps.
This was not Gerrard's most barnstorming performance. There were even times when he could be seen shaking his head as his team-mates struggled to repel the advances of this bright, persistent Marseille side. Yet it was Gerrard, almost inevitably, who contributed the decisive moment, heading in the goal that put Liverpool safely into the knockout stage.
Typical Gerrard. Liverpool's supporters must have lost count of the amount of times he has got them out of a difficult situation. Marseille, a lithe, athletic team, made it a tough evening and Rafael Benítez will be glad to have made it to the end without it becoming an ordeal. This was his 66th European tie as Liverpool's manager, beating the previous best of 65 set by Bill Shankly from 1964 to 1973, and it will not matter too much that it was a largely undeserved victory. It could even be said that it is a quality of Liverpool's that promises to take them much further this season - the ability to grind out results and see off troublesome opponents.
"The team was too open," Benítez said. "When you play like that against a team with pace and ability it's always a problem. We are giving the ball away too easily and clearly have to pass it better. But the main thing was to qualify so we are pleased."
Marseille, as Benítez conceded, could never be classed among the extensive list of opponents who pass under the This Is Anfield sign and find the blood has drained from their faces. The most successful French club in history have the motto Droit Au But, meaning Straight to Goal, and lived up to it in a game they had to win.
Buoyed by their 1-0 victory here last season, there were spells when their quick, one-touch football left their opponents looking every bit as flat as they had been against Fulham at the weekend. Even Gerrard's 23rd minute goal failed to soothe the crowd's nerves and, more than once, there was the tell-tale sign of Benítez pacing the touchline, looking red in the face and making those strange, agitated hand movements that regulars in this ground recognise as signs of alarm.
Mamadou Niang, a speedy Senegalese striker, was a constant menace and, as the pressure increased in the second half, a blistering Hatem Ben Arfa free-kick brought a fingertip save from Pepe Reina. "We were creating chances right up to the final seconds of the game," the Marseille coach, Eric Gerets, reflected. "Not many teams come here and dare to play from the back like that."
Liverpool, however, had a player with the happy knack of being in the right place at the right time. Gerrard's debut came as a second-half substitute in a 2-1 defeat of Blackburn Rovers on November 29, 1998. His teenage frame has filled out since then and the shy smile has been replaced by a confident aura. But some things never change. Gerrard has always been blessed with knowing where to attack in the penalty area and how to elude defenders.
The goal started on the left, with Albert Riera's centre headed out to the opposite side of the pitch. Alvaro Arbeloa collected the ball and moved it to Xabi Alonso, whose first instinct is always to see where Gerrard and Fernando Torres - who is a doubt for Monday's game against West Ham after complaining of a tight hamstring - are lurking. The marking was dubious, to say the least, and Gerrard's header combined power and precision. A cigarette lighter was subsequently thrown at him from the visiting fans and appeared to strike him. "It's important not to react," said Gerrard, "and leave these people to the police." Uefa said it would investigate.
Thereafter, Liverpool ought to have had a more comfortable evening. Instead, there were only sporadic moments when they pinned back their opponents and, in the end, the game fizzled out with one of the more half-hearted renditions of You'll Never Walk Alone. Gerrard left the pitch with a television cameraman circling him. Liverpool's supporters must hope there is another decade to come.
Final score Liverpool 1 – 0
(HT 1 – 0)
Bookings Mascherano 84
Liverpool's Percentage Marseille's Percentage
Corners 6 66% 3 34%
Goal attempts 6 35% 11 65%
On target 4 44% 5 56%
Fouls 21 72% 8 28%
Offside 6 60% 4 40%
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio (Andrea Dossena, 46), Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt (Lucas Leiva, 85), Albert Riera (Yossi Benayoun, 64)
Marseille Steve Mandanda, Laurent Bonnart (Mamadou Samassa, 89), Taye Taiwo, Ronald Zubar, Vitorino da Silva Hilton, Lorik Cana, Bakary Kone (Matthieu Valbuena, 78), Benoit Cheyrou, Karim Ziani, Mamadou Niang, Hatem Ben Arfa
Referee Benquerenca, O
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