Even the banners of the Marseilles fan club – the Yankees Nord – reminded Liverpool of the proprietors whose shadows lie long over their club's future, but the players are suddenly beginning to enjoy a brighter outlook. Rafael Benitez's side have lost only once since the night Chelsea ended their last Champions League campaign in April and the sense that they are a team renewed was reinforced with a win which promises to make this coming autumn decidedly easier than last.
Steven Gerrard, given the freedom to operate centrally which he so craves, was Marseilles' nemesis – just as he was in the 4-0 win here that brought Liverpool group qualification at the death last December. But the achievement was even more remarkable. With only 28 minutes of competitive football behind him since undergoing surgery on the groin trouble which has plagued his early season, Gerrard provided the fluency which gave Liverpool the belief that this game could be theirs and that a fervent Marseilles desire to avenge defeat – "L'OM n'a rien oublie" (Olympique have forgotten nothing) was the way L'Equipe put it yesterday – would come to nothing.
The flick with his instep which deposited a Javier Mascherano pass to Ryan Babel and the backheel to Dirk Kuyt are, as Rafael Benitez would say, small details of Gerrard's night but part of Liverpool's brilliant fluency in a thrilling, end-to-end first half. Then, when they had fallen behind, came the two goals in six minutes from Gerrard – the second his 99th for the club – that defined the night. An exquisite curling strike from 18 yards equalled Marseilles' opener. A retaken penalty took Liverpool ahead.
It was hardly plain sailing after that. The other defining performance belonged to Pepe Reina whose heroics helped his side to hold out in a chaotic final five minutes, saving with his feet when Mamadou Niang, unmarked and staring into the whites of his eyes, shot low and hard. The Senegalese also sent a diving header wide when he might have scored.
Benitez and Gerrard both left Marseilles of the opinion that the performance could have been better. "Steve has said that the team did not perform too well," Benitez said. "That's a positive for me. It means he will play better – and he can play better. It also means we have played with room for improvements. The key was to get a third goal and finish the game but we couldn't do that and we were a bit lucky in the end."
But Liverpool's willingness to give no quarter – the team effort proved Marseilles coach Eric Gerets' talk of the side having the qualities of Duracell bunnies to be rather more prescient than he would have hoped – is another characteristic of the current side. It has seen Benitez's team come from behind to win three times in the last five matches and Mascherano and Kuyt were not the only ones delivering. Lucas Leiva, in for Xabi Alonso, and Ryan Babel also spent much of the night in their own penalty area. Leiva stunted the supply line which Hatem Ben Arfa delivered in the early stages.
Benitez's defence looks the most shaky edifice at times. Andrea Dossena spent half the night heeding the demands of Jamie Carragher and Mascherano to push up and the rest of it struggling to get back. The central defenders also looked leaden and Marseilles had already sprung the offside trap once before they prised an opening goal through the same channel.
It was Benoit Cheyrou's lofted pass which sent the home side's captain Lorik Cana in to dispatch a low shot to the left of the helpless Reina. Marseilles might have aspirations to be Europe's Capital of Culture in 2013 but Benitez's side hit back with a display fitting of the current holders. Babel headed a Torres ball out to Kuyt and after taking the return pass in plenty of space fired over. Then Kuyt was at the heart of a tight creative move, his flick sending Gerrard into the area to deliver a powerful right foot shot which was touched wide by Mendana.
An imposing interception by Lucas was key to the equaliser. He sent a 20-yard pass out right to Kuyt whose first-time flick back into the path of Gerrard was curled imperiously into the left hand corner of the net by the Liverpool captain. When Babel drifted past Ronald Zubar after receiving a 60-yard ball out of defence from Jamie Carragher and the Frenchman stuck out a leg, the night swung Liverpool's way. Gerrard's first attempt – in off the right-hand post – was disallowed when Kuyt encroached but the second kick, sent the same way, took Liverpool ahead.
Atletico Madrid's 4-0 win in Eindhoven suggests a tough road ahead but Liverpool seem ready for it. "The mentality is good. We are ready for winning and recovering from bad positions," Benitez said.
Marseilles (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Bonnart, Zubar, Hilton, Taiwo; Cana, Cheyrou; Kone (Samassa, 75), M'Bami (Valbuena, 41), Ben Arfa (Ziani, 57); Niang. Substitutes not used: Riou (gk), Zenden, Kabore, Erbate.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Dossena; Kuyt (Keane, 86), Mascherano, Lucas, Babel; Gerrard (Benayoun, 69); Torres (Riera, 65). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Alonso, Degen.
Referee: K Plautz (Austria).