Records tumbled before Rafa last night. A 66th European match in charge to surpass Bill Shankly's Liverpool landmark and, more importantly for Rafael Benitez, a 39th victory to equal the standard set by Bob Paisley. That is some company to keep. With it came passage into the last 16 of the Champions League and, inevitably, that was secured courtesy of another who will celebrate an achievement himself this coming weekend.
It is 10 years since Steven Gerrard, now 28, made his Liverpool debut – as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers – and fans will hope another decade of derring-do is to come. His first-half header, a typically dynamic, eye-catching strike was his 30th goal – from the 104 he has as a career total – in his 98th game in European competition and it was enough to garner the points.
Gerrard's importance, for all the lauding of Fernando Torres is almost immeasurable to team and psyche, especially during such unconvincing evenings. But then how often has Gerrard done that for Liverpool? And how often when those around him have failed to live up to expectations, as happened again yesterday? And to think Gerrard only played after recovering from the groin injury that ruled him out of England's friendly in Berlin last week and the weekend's soulless, goalless draw at home to Fulham.
"We know Gerrard is a very important player for us and this goal proves it," Benitez said. Not that the visiting supporters appreciated his value, even if they recognised his threat. Gerrard had a number of objects thrown at him and was hit by a lighter as he prepared to take a corner – but then he has now scored four times in three games against Marseilles. "The Uefa delegate will take notes but he [Gerrard] reacted well," Benitez said of that incident.
European nights against French opposition have always been a bit special for Liverpool with a mark set 31 years ago with Joey Jones "biting" the legs of St-Etienne's players. But this was not one of those evenings. Instead, it was a victory that owed almost as much to a sharp save from Jose Reina – tipping away a fierce shot from the impressive Hatem Ben Arfa – as to some wayward finishing by Marseilles and another resolute display from the indefatigable Jamie Carragher.
"It was a nervy match but still a job well done," Gerrard said. "We wanted all three points and a clean sheet and we got those. It was a frustrating second half. We lost control and there are a few things that need looking at." Benitez agreed. But then as that old maxim goes – one that the Marseilles coach Eric Gerets agreed with: "If Liverpool are lacking in confidence and are off the boil at the moment, then what are they like when they fire on all cylinders?" – to play badly and win is a sign of a good team in itself. Or a lucky one.
Marseilles needed to win to keep alive their own hopes of progressing from Group D and, after a nervy opening 20 minutes, they attacked through their pacey wingers Ben Arfa and Bakari Koné but were set back when Liverpool sprung into the lead. Steve Mandanda made a mess of saving Dirk Kuyt's header and from Gerrard's corner the ball was ferried to the opposite flank for Xabi Alonso to whip in a deep cross. Gerrard rushed in, unmarked, to direct his header into the net.
Liverpool should have settled but did not. Alonso and Javier Mascherano passed the ball with an alarming sloppiness and soon Marseilles were racking up the opportunities. The best fell to Ronald Zubar, after Reina flapped at a corner, but he sent the ball wide. Then a chip forward by Karim Ziani was narrowly missed by Mamadou Niang with Reina stranded.
The pace of the game quickened. Mandanda beat out Albert Riera's cross-shot but then, at the other end, Ben Arfa sped at Liverpool's goal only for his cut back to fall, just, behind the onrushing Benoît Cheyrou. To an extent Liverpool were holding on with both Mascherano and Andrea Dossena making decisive blocks, while Carragher continued to cajole and command amid a flurry of free-kicks being conceded by his panicky team-mates. Tempers frayed after Mascherano's challenge on Mathieu Valbuena, but it was indicative of the frustration Liverpool were feeling.
Still the records were secured and, more importantly, were the points which came courtesy of that all too familiar source. "Hopefully the second-half performance will be forgotten," Gerrard said. Maybe it will. But his importance won't be.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio (Dossena, h-t); Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt (Lucas, 85), Gerrard, Riera (Benayoun, 64); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Keane, Babel, Kelly.
Marseilles (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Bonnart (Samassa, 89), Zubar, Hilton, Taiwo; Ziani, Cana; Ben Arfa, Cheyrou, Koné (Valbuena, 78); Niang. Substitutes not used: Riou (gk), Rodriguez, Zenden, Kaboré, Grandin.
Referee: O Benquerenca (Portugal).
Results: Marseilles 1 Liverpool 2, PSV Eindhoven 0 Atletico Madrid 3; Atletico Madrid 2 Marseilles 1, Liverpool 3 PSV Eindhoven 1; Atletico Madrid 1 Liverpool 1, PSV Eindhoven 2 Marseilles 0; Liverpool 1 Atletico Madrid 1, Marseilles 3 PSV Eindhoven 0; Atletico Madrid 2 PSV Eindhoven 1; Liverpool 1 Marseilles 0.
Remaining fixtures: 9 Dec: Marseilles v Atletico Madrid, PSV Eindhoven v Liverpool.
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