Blues brush aside Aalborg at Eastlands
Ajax fell 2-0 behind in the first leg of the last 16 tie before grabbing a lifeline with a Luis Suarez penalty.
It was a testament to their character that they managed to avoid any further trouble despite playing the entire second half with 10 men.
Among the other grand old names in action, Hamburg SV salvaged a 1-1 draw at home to 10-man Galatasaray, while Paris St Germain were held 0-0 at home to Braga and Werder Bremen beat St Etienne 1-0 with a Naldo goal.
Zenit St Petersburg have their work cut out if they are to stay in with a chance of repeating last year's success, after late goals from Fabio Quagliarella and Antonio Di Natale consigned them to a 2-0 defeat at Udinese.
The only other emphatic victory in the first legs came from ambitious Manchester City, 2-0 winners at home to Danish club AaB Aalborg with beautifully taken goals from Felipe Caicedo and Shaun Wright-Phillips.
The Champions League overshadows the UEFA Cup almost completely these days and untimely exits for AC Milan and Valencia in the last round hardly helped matters.
It was left to Marseille, European champions in 1993, and Ajax, who won the last of their four European Cups in 1995, to give the night a little grandeur.
It looked like being a happy occasion for Marseille as Benoit Cheyrou blasted in from 25 metres for the first and Mamadou Niang struck the second from much closer range.
Suarez reduced the arrears almost immediately only for Gregory van der Wiel to be sent off just before the break.
Marseille failed to make their advantage tell, and the away goal for Ajax should set up a frantic second leg next week.
Vagner Love scored his 11th goal of the competition with a second-half penalty to give 2005 winners CSKA Moscow a 1-0 win from the home leg of their tie against Shakhtar Donetsk.
Dynamo Kiev took the honours in the first meeting between two Ukrainian sides in European club competition when they nicked a 1-0 victory at home to Metalist Kharkiv.