Arbeloa Skrtel Carragher Dossena
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Gerrard 26’ 32’ (pen)
Welcome back, Steven Gerrard.
The first half was eminently watchable, end-to-end stuff. With the return of Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool went back to the 4-2-3-1, while Marseille weren’t content to allow Liverpool the leeway they did in France last season.
Hatem Ben Arfa was particularly threatening early on, dictating play from both flanks, but both Niang and Kone got in on the act. In the 14th minute, Niang should have opened the scoring when he perfectly timed his run to get in on goal, but shot over from an awkward angle.
Within three minutes, Liverpool nearly tallied three times themselves. First, Babel blazed over after doing all hard work by turning the defender exquisitely. Then, Mandanda saved Gerrard’s low effort, with Torres mishitting a diving header onto the roof of the net from the subsequent corner.
Liverpool failed to learn from the close call earlier on, and Cana was able to beat the offside trap (with Carragher the guilty party), running onto Cheyrou’s ball over the top and beating Reina one-on-one.
However, it didn’t take the visitors long to respond. Three minutes, in fact. Torres stole the ball near midfield and countered, getting the ball to Kuyt on the right. The Dutchman laid off for Gerrard, who magnificently thundered a side-footer into the far corner with his first touch. It was a ridiculous shot – one of his best – and for Gerrard that’s saying something. I guarantee it makes pretty much every goal of the season list.
Four minutes later, Liverpool won a penalty when Zubar misjudged a long ball out of defense that Babel was able to run onto, and the defender stuck a leg out to bring him down. Gerrard tallied twice, having to retake the penalty when the referee blew for encroachment on the first attempt, shooting to the same side (his right) both times. It’s his 14th goal in Europe (in 55 appearances), and his 99th for the club.
The two quick goals slowed, but didn't stop, Marseille, with Niang an ever-present danger. Valbuena on for M’Bami in the 41st helped Marseille even more, with the creative midfielder quick to dictate proceedings.
And Valbuena made his biggest impact after the break. Liverpool were seemingly content to allow Marseille possession in search of an equalizer, and looked to counter on the break. It’s not a surprising tactic, and it’s worked in the past, but that the team adopted it so early in the second half didn’t ease the nerves brought on by remembering games last season where Liverpool lost a lead. That Riera came on for Torres (with Babel moving up top) and Benayoun for Gerrard (with the formation looking more and more like a 4-4-1-1) in the 64th and 69th minutes only exacerbated these tactics.
As in the first half, Niang and Kone’s speed unsettled, but Valbuena was the architect of most of Marseille’s good work. Popping up on both sides of the pitch, he regularly looked to beat defenders and get crosses into the box, with his goal at Anfield last season lingering in the memory. Only Ziani’s lack of accuracy prevented Marseille from scoring in the 66th and 72nd after good work from Kone and Niang respectively.
But the counter-attack goal that Liverpool sought should have come in either the 76th or 78th, both times through Babel. First, Mandanda produced an outstanding save, making himself big after the ball fell to Babel following Riera’s cross. Soon after, the striker hit the outside of the post after getting into the box on the left.
Liverpool should have paid for it in the last few minutes, but Pepe Reina literally saved the day (sorry, sorry, too easy of a pun). First, Niang put a header wide and shouted for a penalty that he probably should have gotten, with Arbeloa looking like he pushed the striker in the back. Then, Reina had to make two excellent saves: on Cheyrou’s shot-cum-center across the six-yard box in the 92nd and then on Niang’s strike following a cushioned header. Liverpool are probably lucky to be leaving France with a win.
It was heartening to see Liverpool go back to the 4-2-3-1, and it’s no coincidence Gerrard was as influential as he was. He was in the perfect position to receive Kuyt’s layoff for the first, although it was an absolutely awesome shot he’d struggle to replicate. And Babel, Kuyt, and Gerrard were able to switch positions as needed, with the three probably Liverpool’s best players in the first half.
Babel particularly impressed, and it’s not hyperbole to suggest it was his best performance as a starter. He truly does look bigger and stronger than last season, and defenders struggle to get the ball away from him if his first touch or passing doesn’t let him down. His two chances in the latter stages show the threat he can be as a striker on the counter, with the second leg against Arsenal in the CL another excellent example.
I’m admittedly a bit worried by the way Liverpool sat back, and neither Mascherano nor Lucas were at their best, meaning Liverpool was lacking in midfield, but there were far more positives than negatives. Once again, I’m most impressed by the team’s determination, scoring two after going down early. Liverpool’s won five games this season. They’ve had to overturn a deficit in three of them. That’s character and confidence, two traits that should serve the team very well.