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Gerrard seizes European stage once again

As Nicola Machiavelli, a rather more distinguished Italian than Andrea Dossena, once noted, the ends justify the means. Without excelling, or even impressing, Liverpool guaranteed their place in the knockout phase of the Champions League. Marseille were defeated, courtesy of Steven Gerrard, and after enduring some traumatic times at the corresponding stage of last season, Liverpool found uninspired progress distinctly preferable. Gerrard, however, has long specialised in inspiration, and he was the exception. There are few goal-a-game forwards in the Champions League. He has five in five from midfield (or just behind Fernando Torres, anyway), even if his latest was the sort of strike old-school strikers cherished. His is the return all attackers would enjoy and his proficiency and prolific form in his roaming role bodes badly for Robbie Keane. The Irishman was an unused substitute, which could become a common occurrence when everyone is fit. And, Martin Skrtel apart, the pillars of Rafa Benitez's team were all available. For the first time in almost two months, Gerrard and Torres started together. They are the two men who can transform average performances into victory, and tonight the Englishman was the alchemist. "We know that he is an offensive midfielder with a very good attacking mentality so he can score goals. He is a very important player for us," said Benitez, the latter an exercise in stating the obvious. His captain has taken on the mantle of a European specialist. His contributions have ranged from the decidedly dubious - such as the penalty he won against Atletico Madrid - to the simply superb, including his long-range strike in Marseille and the unstoppable effort against PSV that completed a century of goals for Liverpool. Now, more than anyone else, Gerrard is responsible for Liverpool's place in the last 16. Saturday's stalemate with Fulham was notable for the absence from the starting 11, for very different reasons, of Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. Recalled after injury and an unwanted rest respectively, they combined for the goal. Alonso delivered the deep cross that an unmarked Gerrard headed in. It indicated the importance of both and illustrated why Liverpool fans were calling for the Spaniard long before his introduction on Saturday. He was significant, too, in his positioning. Benitez belongs to the school of managers who would regard it a compliment to be branded a control freak. Excess caution and keeping a surfeit of players behind the ball are among the criticisms levelled at him. There are plenty who will argue, however, that a second deep-lying midfielder is superfluous at Anfield, though there is no doubt that Alonso and Javier Mascherano rank among Liverpool's best 11 players. In the event, Liverpool required two banks of four players to counter Marseille, especially in the second half and it was still a concern to Benitez that "the match was too open". That may be an exaggeration; it was scarcely end-to-end stuff. Marseille's opportunities generally stemmed from the raw speed of Mamadou Niang and the craft of Hatem Ben Arfa, who troubled Andrea Dossena after switching flanks to take on the substitute. They came closest, however, from set pieces. Following a free kick Taye Taiwo's long-range shot clipped the post, via Jose Reina's outstretched arm, and Ronald Zubar headed wide twice when the goal loomed large in front of him. But Liverpool were disconcerted and Benitez outlined their difficulties: "They needed to attack. They were offensive. They had three strikers and one or two players between the lines so to control five players with pace and ability is not easy." In another comment, however, he identified the root of the problems. "We need to improve our possession," he added. "We need to pass the ball better." "We tried to take on Liverpool and I think we did that," said Marseille coach Eric Gerets. "We were never scared. My team deserves praise for their performance. Not many teams come here and dare to start playing football from the back and create the number of chances we did." The sides were separated, he argued, by Liverpool's ability to convert them. "It's just that difference between the real top-class sides and the sides just one step down," he explained. "It's that small thing that is lacking." It was lacking for Liverpool when Gerrard missed the match with Fulham. Without him, a goal was elusive. With him, one was procured and qualification secured. Their method of victory means it wasn't a memorable match, but it ended well enough for Liverpool.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Hatem Ben Arfa - His blend of skill and speed meant he offered Marseille's greatest hope of an equaliser. The Frenchman did well on the left flank, but better on the right after switching to take on, and torment, Dossena. LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They were some way below their best. While Torres' sharpness offers hope of a return to goalscoring form, Mascherano was unusually wasteful in possession and Dossena was abject after he replaced Fabio Aurelio. There is a theory that, Alvaro Arbeloa apart, Benitez has a blind spot when it comes to buying full-backs. The £7 million Italian certainly supports that. MARSEILLE VERDICT: They could consider themselves unfortunate to lose, but they are now consigned to a battle for a UEFA Cup place. They are second in the French league and Liverpool second in the Premier League; on the night, it was an even contest, but the sight of one in the last 16 of the Champions League and the other struggling to stay in Europe is indicative of a wider trend. FRANKLY SPEAKING: The biggest cheer of the night was reserved not for Gerrard's winner, but the news of Frank Lampard's dismissal in Bordeaux. Whoever would have guessed the Chelsea vice-captain isn't popular at Anfield?


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