Example to follow

With Gerrard inspirational once again on the comeback trail and Torres simply irrepressible, Liverpool operated on a different plane, writes Andy Hunter.

Rafael Benitez 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 on December 11. 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 Benitez 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 Benitez, 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 Nino breezed into port and Marseille were blown away.

“I have always maintained confidence that I will be the manager of Liverpool,” said Benitez. “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 Velodrome 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 Benitez’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.

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 Gael 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 £26.5m transfer fee given the Champions League riches it ensured.

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.


December 12: Arsenal 2 (Diaby 8, Bendtner 42) bt Steaua Bucharest 1 (Zaharia 69). Half-time: 2-0; Barcelona 3 (Giovanni 36, Eto’o 57, Ronaldinho 67) bt VfB Stuttgart 1 (Da Silva 4). Half-time: 1-1; Fenerbahce 3 (Alex 32, Boral 45 & 90) bt CSKA Moscow 1 (Edu Dracena o.g. 31). Half-time: 2-1; PSV 0 lost to Inter Milan 1 (Cruz 64). Half-time: 0-0; Rangers 0 lost to Lyon 3 (Govou 16, Benzema 85 & 88). Half-time: 0-1; Roma 1 (Mancini 71) drew with Manchester United 1 (Pique 34). Half-time: 0-1; Slavia Prague 0 lost to Sevilla 3 (Luis Fabiano 67, Kanoute 69, Daniel 87). Half-time: 0-0; Sporting 3 (Anderson Polga pen-35, Joao Moutinho 67, Liedson 89) bt Dynamo Kiev 0. Half-time: 1-0.

December 11: Chelsea 0 drew with Valencia 0; FC Porto 2 (Gonzalez 44, Quaresma 62) bt Besiktas 0. Half-time: 1-0; Marseille 0 lost to Liverpool 4 (Gerrard 4, Torres 11, Kuyt 48, Babel 90). Half-time: 0-2; Olympiakos 3 (Stoltidis 12 & 74, Kovacevic 70) bt Werder Bremen 0. Half-time: 1-0; Real Madrid 3 (Julio Baptista 13, Raul 16, Robinho 36) bt Lazio 1 (Pandev 81). Half-time: 3-0; Schalke-04 3 (Asamoah 12, Rafinha 19, Kuranyi 36) bt Rosenborg 1 (Kone 23). Half-time: 3-1.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007