An Englishman came to the rescue of French giants Marseille's UEFA Cup campaign as journeyman defender Tyrone Mears scored a goal in extra time to help his side to a 2-2 draw on the night, but a 4-3 aggregate success over Dutch side Ajax and a place in the quarter-finals.
Mears, the only Englishman playing in the top flight of French football, headed home in the second half of extra time to raise French morale after St Etienne had also forced a 2-2 draw at home to Werder Bremen but they went out 3-2 on aggregate.
Marseille coach Eric Gerets, who has revived the fortunes of the club since taking over, conceded that Ajax had been the better side. "I would like to congratulate Marco van Basten (Ajax coach) on his tactics," said the no-nonsense former Belgium captain.
"It is the first time for a long time that my midfield had so much difficulty. We were running like imbeciles after the ball. It is painful for a coach to see his players suffering like that."
However, Gerets, who captained Belgium to the 1986 FIFA World Cup semi-finals, was still proud of his players. "I saw my guys run themselves into the ground this evening. That is what satisfied me: we fought to the end. That is more than a positive thing, it is marvellous. I am proud of them."
The Ajax and Marseille clash got off to a tense start as the stadium announcer had to order a Dutch fan to stop shining a laser in the eyes of former Dutch international Boudewijn Zenden - who played for PSV Eindhoven during his time in the domestic league - which forced the referee to stop the match for around a minute.
Marseille surrendered their overall advantage in the tie when Ajax took the lead on the night and on away goals when Eyong Enoh scored in the 32nd minute after the French side's defence opened up beautifully for him and he made them pay as he tucked the ball away. However the former UEFA European Cup winners were back on level terms and ahead overall just two minutes later as Baky Kone created a chance for Senegalese international Mamadou Niang, who slipped the ball between the legs of young goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer to make it 1-1 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to Marseille.
It was justice for the club and Niang, who had had an earlier goal disallowed when Kone was adjudged to be offside whilst Nigerian international Taye Taiwo had seen a vicious effort turned away for a corner by Vermeer. The French side lost concentration early in the second half which nearly cost them in the 53rd minute only for France 'keeper Steve Mandanda to pull off a miraculous save from Luis Suarez.
However, it was a brilliant piece of individual skill from Suarez that created the second goal as he turned on a sixpence in the box completely outwitting the defender and his cross was headed home by Miralem Sulejmani to force extra time. Mears was the unlikely hero as he restored Marseille's overall hold on the match when he made it 2-2 on the night in time added on of the first period of extra time heading past Vermeer.
Marseille's First Division rivals St Etienne virtually saw their chances of progressing disappear in the first half as Werder Bremen took a 2-0 lead through Sebastian Prodl and veteran Claudio Pizarro. Prodl effectively gave the relegation-threatened former European Cup finalists mission impossible when he headed home in the fifth minute from German international Torsten Frings's corner.
The hosts rarely threatened the German side's goal with out of form and out of favour French international Bafetimbi Gomis forcing a save from Tim Wiese, while exhilarating Brazilian Diego twice made St Etienne 'keeper Jeremie Janot into good saves as the Germans turned on the style. Janot, though, was helpless to stop Pizarro scoring his fifth goal in European club football this season as the Peruvian headed home from Mesut Ozil's cross in the 27th minute.
St Etienne, though, did give themselves an outside chance of pulling off a miracle when Yohan Benalouane scored in the 64th minute after Frings had conceded a free-kick and he headed home past Wiese. The hosts at least saved face when they made it 2-2 on the night just before the final whistle as Sebastien Grax beat the Bremen goalkeeper with a shot from the right hand side of the box.
Among Thursday's matches holders Zenit St Petersburg could go out as they trail the only Italian side left in European competition Udinese 2-0, while former UEFA Cup Winners Cup winners Paris Saint Germain are away at Sporting Braga after a goalless draw in Paris.