Wednesday December 12, 2007
Andy Hunter at the Stade VÃ©lodrome, The Guardian
Rafael BenÃtez will leave his meeting with the club owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks with a lavish new contract should he make as light of their dispute as Liverpool did their Champions League predicament here last night. So supreme and serene were Liverpool in the first of the pivotal encounters to shape their season – and their manager’s future – that it is astonishing to think they ever flirted with an abrupt exit. The club’s hierarchy have been given an example to follow.
The stance BenÃtez takes with the Liverpool co-chairmen will influence the length of his stay, but the watching Gillett cannot doubt the European pedigree of this team after this. Once again Liverpool have proved masters of rescuing a lost cause, producing the victory demanded to secure a place in the knockout stage of their favoured competition for the fourth consecutive season under BenÃtez, having taken only one point from the opening three games in Group A.
Their response to European danger has been as demonstrative as the club’s support when the precariousness of the manager’s position at Anfield became evident. In three “must-win” fixtures Liverpool have plundered 16 goals and saved their finest performance until last with Fernando Torres magnificently to the fore. El NiÃ±o breezed into port last night and Marseille were blown away.
“I have always maintained confidence that I will be the manager of Liverpool,” said BenÃtez. “The supporters and the players are happy. That is the key.”
The key to unlocking Marseille was an outstanding team performance which confirmed that Liverpool have regained their love and lust for the Champions League. The Stade VÃ©lodrome did not fail its team, piercing the cold Mediterranean night with incessant screams and displaying the crests of all six English teams to fall here like heads on Traitors’ Gate, but its team could not cope with Liverpool’s power, movement and execution.
Within 11 minutes BenÃtez’s team brutally and brilliantly made amends for their Anfield aberration when the teams met last. Here Marseille were exposed for what they are, 13th in the French league and with only one point from three Champions League games since that shock victory on Merseyside. With Steven Gerrard inspirational once again on the comeback trail and Torres simply irrepressible, Liverpool operated on a different plane.
The high-octane occasion brought adventure from BenÃtez’s players but drew no risks from the manager, who selected the strongest XI available and dispensed with the experiments that backfired in the first game. One of those, Mohamed Sissoko, did not take kindly to being left behind and told a radio station yesterday that he would consider leaving Liverpool in the transfer window. His folly in claiming a place in this team was exposed as swiftly as gaps in the French defence.
From an inauspicious start, when Gerrard injured himself trying to collect Dirk Kuyt’s weak kick-off, the Liverpool captain dispelled his own fitness fears and the tension of his team when he surged clear of a static rearguard in the third minute. Inside the area he was stopped by a strong tackle from GaÃ«l Givet, who appeared to take the ball and the man and was aghast when the Norwegian referee, Terje Hauge, pointed to the spot. Gerrard himself drove the spot-kick straight down the centre and, even though Steve Mandanda made a firm one-handed save, the midfielder followed up to convert the rebound.
If there were doubts about the opening goal, the excellence of the second spoke for itself. Harry Kewell drifted down the left and flicked a pass inside to Torres on the corner of the penalty area. With an instant turn the Spaniard was away from one fluorescent pink shirt, ghosted inside another and then slotted a precision finish inside the far corner – a sublime goal, his 12th in Liverpool colours already this season, and a swift repayment on half of his record Â£26.5m transfer fee given the Champions League riches it ensured.
The personal cost to the striker was more painful. At the end of a second slalom run he appeared to take a punch to the head from Julien Rodriguez, and the other Marseille centre-half Givet then clattered through him, damaging himself.
Kewell was another to shine and his ingenuity produced a third goal minutes after the restart. Mandanda scuffed a poor clearance and again Liverpool punished. Kewell lofted a pass forward for Kuyt, who ambled clear and swept a confident shot beyond the keeper. In the final seconds the substitute Ryan Babel latched on to Fabio Aurelio’s pass, touched the ball wide of Mandanda and rolled it into the empty net. This was a comfortable stroll through a time of crisis.