Liverpool 0 Marseilles 1: Wheels come off Benitez's rotation policy
There have been some great European nights at Anfield, from the days of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, to those of Gérard Houllier and Rafael Benitez. This was not one of them, not unless you were from Provence.
A shockingly poor performance from last season's Champions League finalists left their prospects of reaching this campaign's knock-out stages in grave jeopardy. Laboured and unimaginative, Liverpool were lucky to lose by only one goal. Marseilles had a 33rd-minute strike harshly chalked off for offside before Mathieu Valbuena scored what proved the winner after 76 minutes. It was Liverpool's first defeat of the season and the first time the club had lost at home to French opposition.
Rafael Benitez, who made some interesting selection choices, was quietly seething at the end. "Are there any positives you can take from this?" he was asked. "Only that it is finished," he said.
It is not, though, for his team. Benitez, who was the last visiting manager to win a group stage game here, with Valencia, said he would analyse the match and consider the performance of every player.
"It was a bad day, everything was wrong," he said. "It could be our worst performance since I came here. It was clear from the beginning that we were not playing very well. We could not create chances.
"You can talk about team selection, but today we had some big names. We tried to change things but we could not. We were not good enough."
The next game is in Istanbul, the first of two back-to-back matches with pointless Besiktas. Marseilles are now two points clear in Group A with Porto second on four points and Liverpool third with only one.
Benitez's latest rotation gave Peter Crouch the chance to back up complaints about his omission with goals, and Sebastian Leto, the 21-year-old left winger signed from Lanus, in his native Argentina, for £1.85m in the summer, a full debut.
His first involvement was encouraging, misleadingly so, as he found Fernando Torres in space at the edge of the box. The £23m striker's first touch let him down. Thereafter Leto began to run into blind alleys, not that the senior players were any better. Steven Gerrard and Mohamed Sissoko were unable to get a foothold on the game in midfield while the front pair were incapable of retaining what little possession they received.
Marseilles, in their first match under new coach Eric Gerets, were far more impressive, their confident passing belying a mediocre domestic record. In the 12th-minute, Karim Ziani released Mamadou Niang whose shot cannoned away off Pepe Reina's legs. Twelve minutes from the break, Niang again escaped to break on to a low Taye Taiwo cross. From six yards out he shot at Reina and as Ziani stabbed in the rebound a raised linesman's flag was spotted. The decision was borderline.
Benitez left his team unchanged for the second period, presumably on the basis that they could not continue to play as badly. As the frustration levels rose, Jamie Carragher joined Gerrard and Sissoko in the book, cautions that could prove expensive as the tournament develops. With 21 minutes remaining, Andrei Voronin, then Dirk Kuyt, were added to the mix. Liverpool now had Kuyt and Torres up front and Voronin and Yossi Benayoun on the flanks. The functioning attack belonged, though, to Marseilles. With 14 minutes to go, Sissoko was caught in possession, the ball was switched slickly to Valbuena who, as Carragher stood off him, bent a shot in off the cross bar.
The home crowd, which had already swung wildly from groaning disenchantment to urging support, became even more manic. "Attack, attack, attack", was the cry. Their heroes complied. In a frantic finale Sami Hyypia and Benayoun both went close at corners. Then, in injury time, Torres crashed a shot against the post after a rare Gerrard burst caused chaos in the French defence. An equaliser would, though, have been more than Liverpool deserved. This was made clear by the Liverpool fans. They had cheered old favourites Bolo Zenden and Djibril Cissé, but they booed their own players off.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Aurelio (Voronin, 69); Benayoun, Gerrard, Sissoko, Leto (Riise, 51); Torres, Crouch (Kuyt, 75). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Arbeloa, Babel, Mascherano.
Marseilles (4-4-2): Mandanda; Bonnart, Rodriguez, Givet, Taiwo; Ziani, Cana, Cheyrou, Zenden (Arrache, 87); Valbuena (Oruma, 83), Niang (Cissé, 69). Substitutes not used: Hamel (gk), Zubar, M'Bami, Moussilou.
Referee: K Plautz (Austria).
Results: FC Porto 1 Liverpool 1; Marseilles 2 Besiktas 0; Besiktas 0 FC Porto 1; Liverpool 0 v Marseilles 1.
Remaining fixtures: 24 Oct: Besiktas v Liverpool; Marseilles v FC Porto. 6 Nov: FC Porto v Marseilles; Liverpool v Besiktas. 28 Nov: Besiktas v Marseilles; Liverpool v FC Porto. 11 Dec: FC Porto v Besiktas; Marseilles v Liverpool.