Wise men say that the mark of champions is to play badly and win, particularly at away games. While judging a team by its performance on match day one doesn't seem particularly sensible, one would have to feel tempted to conclude that the 2008-09 season may well belong to Liverpool Football Club. They only just scraped past Marseille, and it was down to not one, but two moments of magic from the talisman, the man, who in recent times has become the face of the club.
Liverpool were poor, the defence was holding a high line. Jamie Carragher, who has been described by the great Franco Baresi as the 'best centre half in Europe', was having an absolute shocker. The Marseille attacking trio of Niang, Kone and Cana were beating the offside trap with alarming regularity. At the other end, Ryan Babel was weaving his magic, keeping defenders off the ball, dancing his way past defenders, but the finish was missing. Then the moment the home supporters had been waiting for. Lorik Cana beat the offside trap (played onside by you guessed it... Carra) and put the ball past Reina to put Marseille up 1-0. That was in the 23rd minute. The home fans were in full voice as Marseille started dominating play. Just then, Steven Gerrard decided to announce his presence. Fernando Torres, making his return from a hamstring injury, retained possession shrugging off a challenge and made a run towards the Marseille penalty . Dirk Kuyt came in on the right flank, and Torres found him. Kuyt rolled the ball into Gerrard's path. What followed next was pure sorcery. It seems the 'G force' had spotted the otherwise impeccable French international Steve Mandanda off his line. He went for skill over power, as the right foot, famous for its pile drivers curled the ball in with pin point precision, into the net. Eric Gerets team had been enchanted into subjugation, Liverpool were back on level terms.
Six minutes later, Marseille were behind. Carragher it was whose long hopeful ball, was latched onto by the incredible Ryan Babel (not the super sub, but a starter), who made a run into the Marseille penalty area. It took one swift step over to square the defender, who was subsequently drawn into the challenge. Babel had been tripped inside the area, and Liverpool had a penalty. And who better to step up and take it than Liverpool's top scorer in Europe? He went to the left the keeper first time round, and the ball went in of the post. But there would be no celebration right away, as the penalty would have to be retaken, owing to 'encroachment by a Liverpool player'. As the commentators speculated about the real reason for the retaking of the penalty, Stevie G, the man with delightful skill, displayed 'nerves of steel' as he put it away again to the keeper's left for his 99th gial for the club. Maybe the ref wanted to give him a chance to demonstrate how penalties were to be taken. He clearly didn't disappoint.
Marseille then brought on Mathieu Valbuena for Modeste M'bama in the 40th minute, a decision that almost stood vindicated, as the man who scored a wonder goal at the fortress called Anfield to hand Liverpool a defeat on match day one last season galvanised his team's attacking play. Right through the second half, through a succesion of set pieces and slick moves, Marseille threatened to spoil Liverpool's party. But their quality in the final third will be questioned, and Pepe Reina's in goal won't (having saved two gilt-edged chances from Niang in the dying moments) as Liverpool held on to win a game that, in the eyes of pundits clearly had to go the other way.Rafael Benitez, who was his usual self on the sideline, scribbling notes and pacing furiously along the touchline, did admit that his side had been 'lucky' and that 'there is room for improvement.' On the Kop though, you would suppose they have two words for what Liverpool have been playing with this year, "CHAMPIONS" LUCK"!
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