Sep 17, 2008

Gerrard pulls strings as Liverpool beat OM

New season, similar outcome. Nine months after dancing through the Stade Vélodrome as if they owned the place, Liverpool FC kicked off UEFA Champions League Group D with a 2-1 comeback win at Olympique de Marseille, Steven Gerrard returning to the side to fire both their goals.

Gerrard double
The influential Reds' captain was an injury doubt before kick-off, but there was nothing rusty about his first-half performance as he responded to Lorik Cana's opener with a majestic strike from distance and a pinpoint spot-kick. He eventually departed in the 69th minute, but by then his team were well on their way to victory – one less dominant than their 4-0 success here last December, but important all the same.

Returning stars
Fernando Torres likewise found his way back into Rafael Benítez's starting XI after a hamstring knock, and the Spaniard instigated the first real skirmish too, forcing a corner that he himself subsequently headed goalwards, only for Steve Mandanda to palm over. At the other end Mamadou Niang blasted over, but if Marseille thought they were now going to impose their will, Liverpool began displaying real menace. First, Ryan Babel skipped past Ronald Zubar and shot high, then Gerrard called Mandanda into action with a low drive before Torres looped a header on to the roof of the net.

Cana breakthrough
Given that pattern, it was a genuine surprise when Cana broke the deadlock after 23 minutes. Modeste M'Bami served Benoît Cheyrou in the centre and the midfielder flicked a pass over the visitors' static back line for his captain to rifle beyond Pepe Reina. That merely incurred the Merseysiders' wrath, however, Torres quickly dispossessing M'Bami and feeding Dirk Kuyt on the right. The Dutchman calmly set up Gerrard to hit a magnificent, long-distance curling effort first time that Mandanda merely watched as it looped in.

Retaken penalty
Merely four minutes later, Liverpool were ahead courtesy of their talismanic skipper once again. Zubar's foul on Babel had the referee pointing to the spot, and despite having to retake his penalty, Gerrard found joy low to Mandanda's left. Immediately afterwards, Niang speared narrowly wide, but the home side were rattled and replaced M'Bami with Mathieu Valbuena four minutes before half-time.

Marseille chances
Symbol of Marseille's 1-0 triumph at Anfield last term, the diminutive provocateur demonstrated quick feet more than once after the restart, with Benítez's charges now content to counterattack. Considering Babel's pace, that was always a threatening proposition and Mandanda had to dive at the winger's feet to deny him close to the hour. Chances for Koné volley and Vitorino Hilton restored local belief, but substitute Karim Ziani really should have done better with Koné's expert cut-back.

Babel threat
Instead, Liverpool continued to look the more likely scorers and Babel almost did just that with a fierce close-range effort blocked by Mandanda. A constant threat as he celebrated a rare starting berth, the Dutch international still had time to clip a post. The gulf between the two teams may have shrunk, but the English outfit look a lot more comfortable than their Ligue 1 counterparts.


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