Gerrard’s header from a Xabi Alonso cross was one of the few positives to be taken out of another poor performance in front of the Anfield crowd.
The Reds had their chances to make it more. Dirk Kuyt should have scored shortly before Gerrard gave the side the lead but his leaping header was saved by Steve Mandana in the French outfit’s goal.
The lacklustre performance by the Reds saw a nervous finish with Marseille controlling the game for long periods and coming close, but for some good saves by Pepe Reina and strong defensive covering by Jamie Carragher.
The Reds now take on PSV Eindhoven in their final group game on 9 December in Holland.
Match Report from Sky Sports
Nervy Reds make it through
The Reds were pushed all the way by the French side – who won on Merseyside last season.
But once again Liverpool had their captain Steven Gerrard to thank for their victory.
Gerrard, playing behind Fernando Torres in an advanced role, swooped to head home Xabi Alonso’s cross after 23 minutes.
Liverpool now remain level on points with Atletico Madrid at the top of Group D – but they are behind the Spanish club on goal difference.
Marseille needed an unlikely win to maintain their hopes of finishing in the top two, and they started with three up front – Mamadou Niang as the main attacker with width provided by Bakari Kone and Hatem Ben Arfa.
But although the French side had the right intentions, they seemed unsure about committing too many men forward.
It meant that for the opening phase, Marseille never quite got at a somewhat hesitant Liverpool, who struggled to get their own game going.
Benitez had fielded arguably his strongest available side, with Robbie Keane on the bench and Gerrard back in his supporting role for Torres.
Eventually the game spluttered into life when Torres got to the line and laid the ball back for Dirk Kuyt to see a good header fumbled away by Steve Mandanda.
And that, after 23 minutes, paved the way to Liverpool‘s opener. From the resulting corner by Gerrard the ball was half cleared away to Alvaro Arbeloa.
He guided the ball out to Xabi Alonso, who fired in a far-post cross allowing Gerrard – still moving into the box following his corner – to plant a firm header wide of Mandanda.
Albert Riera could have grabbed another from 20 yards just before the break, and that would have extinguished much of Marseille’s desire.
As it was they still believed they had a chance and it needed a good save from Jose Reina to keep out Niang’s low drive at the start of the second period.
Andrea Dossena replaced the injured Fabio Aurelio, and Yossi Benayoun was soon to take over from Riera as Liverpool sought to finish the contest.
But belief still coursed through Marseille, and Reina did well to turn away a fierce 25-yarder from Taye Taiwo, with Ronald Zubar going close with a header from the resulting corner.
And when the clever Ben Arfa’s low cross flashed into the Liverpool box, Benoit Cheyrou was too close for comfort with his run into space.
Ben Arfa was now on the right to attack the erratic Dossena, and it was only inches that denied him a penalty from a lunge by the Italian.
And when Reina needed to hurl himself full stretch to keep out a swerving Ben Arfa free-kick, the alarm bells were clearly ringing.
And after 78 minutes a familiar foe arrived to give Liverpool more worries. Mathieu Valbuena had scored the winner here 13 months ago, and a knee injury was supposed to force him out for a month.
But on he trotted to replace Kone, and Liverpool continued to be under pressure. And when Javier Mascherano hauled down the midfielder, enraging the French team’s players, he was rightly booked.
Niang was also cautioned for his part in the pushing and shoving that followed. Lucas replaced Kuyt as Liverpool tried to see out the game, but it was a nasty atmosphere now, with tackles flying in.
But Liverpool clung onto their victory to reach the knockout stages again.
Line-ups and Substitutions
Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio (Dossena 46), Mascherano, Alonso, Kuyt (Leiva Lucas 85), Gerrard, Riera (Benayoun 63), Torres. Subs Not Used: Cavalieri, Keane, Babel, Kelly.
Marseille: Mandanda, Bonnart (Samassa 89), Zubar, Hilton, Taiwo, Ziani, Cana, Cheyrou, Ben Arfa, Niang, Kone (Valbuena 78). Subs Not Used: Riou, Rodriguez, Zenden, Kabore, Grandin.
Ref: Olegario Benquerenca (Portugal)
Weather: Mild, dry
Atmosphere: Poor for a European night