This match pitted the two sides that held the best home and away records in the division. It was the visitors that began brighter, as Igor Tudor’s side were controversially denied a goal after Alexis Sanchez took advantage of some sloppy defending by the hosts, before intercepting from Kevin Danso and firing the ball past Brice Samba.
The VAR prompted referee Clement Turpin to look at the pitchside monitor, who harshly penalised the Chile international for a foul on the Lens defender.
Franck Haise’s side had offered very little in the opening exchanges, but skipper Seko Fofana almost broke the deadlock in emphatic fashion with a fierce long-range strike that rattled off the post.
Tempers were starting to boil over following a melee on the touchline as Facundo Medina fired a loose ball towards the Marseille defence.
The Argentine received a yellow card for his troubles, while a member from the backroom staff of both clubs received a red card.
Tudor's men suffered another blow after the disallowed goal when Samuel Gigot was forced off injured and replaced by Leonardo Balerdi, but it would get even worse for Les Olympiens before the break.
Fofana fired the hosts in front with a sensational long-range shot, which flew past Pau Lopez on this occasion, in what was almost a carbon copy of his first attempt.
Down the other end, Samba made a stunning one-handed stop to preserve Lens’ lead from Jordan Veretout’s strike in a breathless first half.
The omens were looking good for a Marseille comeback with Tudor’s side having amassed 21 points from losing positions, while their away record was not only the best in France, but across Europe’s top five leagues.
Balerdi would have been disappointed not to set the visitors on their way to another comeback after he headed over from Ruslan Malinovskyi’s enticing in-swinging free-kick.
He would come to rue that missed opportunity when Lois Openda headed home from Przemyslaw Frankowski’s excellent cross to score his 19th Ligue 1 goal of the season.
Dimitri Payet halved the deficit late on after showing brilliant composure to slot in a close-range finish, but it would prove little more than a consolation.
It was a wonderful evening for Haise’s men, who know that a top-two finish for the first time since 2001/02 is firmly in their sights.
However, if Troyes spring a surprise and beat Paris Saint-Germain on Sunday then a title tilt could be on the cards for Les Sang et Or.
Meanwhile, this defeat ends a nine-match unbeaten run in all competitions for Marseille and their hopes of finishing top appear to be over.