Marseilles 0 Liverpool 4: Torres leads rout as Liverpool complete great escape in style

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The Independent Online

The first question George Gillett must feel like asking Rafael Benitez, after flying into Marseilles for a surprise look at his English sporting franchise last night, is, "How did my team come to the brink of being knocked out of Europe?"

With this imperious performance Liverpool made Marseilles look so ordinary that their victory at Anfield earlier in the tournament, which turned Group A upside down, seemed to have been a mirage.

It was true enough, however, as was the collapse against Besiktas in Istanbul. Gillett and his co-owner, Tom Hicks, may thus want Benitez to explain Liverpool's frustrating inconsistency. Benitez, for his part, can point to another accomplished performance by Javier Mascherano to argue the case for the Americans stumping up another 17m to make the Argentine's loan permanent.

There is, of course, another test to come this weekend, a rather more demanding one against Manchester United at Anfield, when both owners will be present. But Liverpool will go into the match in good shape having barely broken sweat in securing their place in the Champions League knockout stages.

Their safe passage was in doubt for only 11 minutes. That is as long as it took Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to give Liverpool an imposing advantage. Dirk Kuyt made the game safe soon after the break and Ryan Babel added a fourth goal in injury time.

Liverpool thus finished a group stage which began with a draw and two defeats, with three victories and 16 goals. In such form no one will welcome being paired with them in the last 16 draw, to be held in Switzerland on 21 December, even though teams of the calibre of Milan, Internazionale, Barcelona or Real Madrid await.

"Who we get does not matter for us for now," Benitez said, "let's just enjoy the situation. Remember last time people said, 'Oh you play Barcelona,' but two months later we were playing better. "They are all good opponents but we have time to keep growing. You can see the difference almost every week."

Asked how it was Liverpool came so close to elimination Benitez indicated a lack of belief earlier in the season when he said: "We are playing well with a lot of confidence now.

"We are scoring goals and not conceding them. I always believed we would qualify. I am really proud to be the manager of this team. The performance tonight was very good. It was a bad pitch, a windy day, but we played really well.

"We were compact, working hard, good on the counter-attack, not conceding chances, everything was almost perfect."

Almost? "We could have scored more goals," he added, with a smile.

They could, too. Until last night Marseilles had an unblemished record against English clubs at the Stade Vlodrome. Played six: won six including victories in the last eight years over Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool themselves.

Yet all but one of Marseilles' scorers in those matches departed for the Premier League: William Gallas, Robert Pires, Didier Drogba, Abdoulaye Mt and Tal Ben Haim. The exception, Franck Ribry, left for Bayern Munich.

The French production line continues to churn out talent but such players are hard to replace and Marseilles were further weakened with Samir Nasri unfit enough to start.

That left them to field the same XI which won at Anfield in October but any similarity with that night ended there.

Only two minutes had elapsed when Kuyt exchanged passes with Torres and then released Gerrard. The captain drove in to the box, Laurent Bonnart foolishly dived in and Gerrard went over his legs.

Steve Mandanda, wearing all white like a young Peter Shilton, parried Gerrard's kick but the England international thumped in the rebound for his 10th goal in 11 games.

Seven minutes later Harry Kewell gained possession on the left. He slipped the ball inside to Torres, who beautifully sidestepped a series of challenges before rolling the ball in for the second and his 12th goal of the season.

It was the perfect start for Liverpool. They sat back, allowed Marseilles to play in front of them, and looked to release Torres on the counter-attack.

The ploy nearly worked shortly before the break when Kuyt sent Torres clear but the Spaniard chipped over. Kewell also put the ball over the bar unlike his countrymen on this ground against England in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final.

Not that it mattered. Marseilles had 64 per cent of the ball but managed one effort on target. Only once in the first half did they penetrate the deep cover in front of Pepe Reina's goal and then Mathieu Valbuena, the hero at Anfield, wasted the position.

Eric Gerets introduced Nasri, then Djibril Ciss, but the game was over when Kuyt scored after Kewell had intercepted a poor clearance by Mandanda. Babel completed the rout in injury time when he ran onto Fabio Aurelio's pass and walked the ball in.

A chill wind had blown across the Stade Vlodrome all night but, on the bench, Benitez felt only the comforting warmth of victory. Gillett, oddly, did not speak to him last night but the manager was unconcerned, expressing his confidence he will remain in situ.

"I am not thinking about my situation, just thinking about my team," he said. "The players and the supporters are happy. The key for the future is to keep going, keep improving."

Marseilles (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Bonnart, Givet (Faty, h/t), Rodriguez, Taiwo; Cana, Cheyrou (Nasri, 34); Ziani, Valbuena, Zenden (Cisse, h/t); Niang. Substitutes not used: Mate (gk), Oruma, Zubar, M'Bami.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell (Aurelio, 67); Kuyt (Lucas, 86), Torres (Babel, 77). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Finnan, Crouch, Hobbs.

Referee: T Hauge (Norway).

Brief history: How Group A played out

18 September:

Marseilles 2 Besiktas 0

Porto 1 Liverpool 1

3 October:

Besiktas 0 Porto 1

Liverpool 0 Marseilles 1

24 October:

Besiktas 2 Liverpool 1

Marseilles 1 Porto 1

6 November:

Liverpool 8 Besiktas 0

Porto 2 Marseilles 1

28 November

Besiktas 2 Marseilles 1

Liverpool 4 Porto 1

12 December:

Marseilles 0 Liverpool 4

Porto 2 Besiktas 0

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