Football: Curse of Kinnear haunts Houllier

Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online
IT WAS etched in the grinning visage of Joe Kinnear and echoed in the smiling faces circling the perimeter of Selhurst Park before yesterday's game. Liverpool were having local difficulties - as well as foreign ones - and coming to Wimbledon. And by the looks on the assembled faces, the fans as well as the Dons' manager had more than an inkling what the result would be.

Wimbledon muscled their way to an enterprising victory while Liverpool, though industrious, were ultimately their own worst enemies. Wimbledon are now in the top eight while Liverpool ended the afternoon as they began it - in the bottom half of the Premiership.

As the pattern of the first half emerged it was hard not to feel sorry for Phil Babb, Steve Staunton and Jamie Carragher in the Liverpool defence. There was severe early pressure from Wimbledon, with Michael Hughes piling flat crosses over the heads of the Liverpool defenders. It was getting on for 30 minutes before any of the defenders won a meaningful header against Marcus Gayle and Carl Leaburn.

In midfield, Jason Euell demonstrated how much he has matured this season with an athletic and skilful performance. One delightful flick over the head of Babb showed a subtlety and wit which has not exactly been a mainstay of Wimbledon's game during their years in the top division.

For the Wimbledon defenders the prospect of tethering Michael Owen was of course unnerving, but the reality really was not that bad. Wimbledon have one of the Premiership's quickest defences and his attempted breakaways were contained sufficiently during the first half.

Wimbledon took the match by the scruff of the neck at the start of the second period. Gayle sent the ball through to the excellent Hughes wide on the left and while he advanced down the touchline his supplier lurked in the box for the return ball. When it came Gayle appeared to have scuffed his chance, but the ball broke to Robbie Earle whose cool left-foot finish beat David James.

The tone of Liverpool's response suggested the match's eventual outcome as they attacked swiftly in an effort to draw level. Paul Ince's speculative shot disappeared high into the evening sky. In the second half, Owen was effectively subdued by the combination of Chris Perry and Dean Blackwell, but he was not as anonymous as the lacklustre Robbie Fowler, who was substituted after an hour.

When Liverpool's chance came to equalise it was telling that Owen, usually so reliable from any range, should squander a penalty. The Wimbledon substitute, Andy Roberts, was perhaps harshly judged to have brought down Ince, but Owen's placed kick was saved by Neil Sullivan, diving to his left.

Liverpool's frustration then manifested itself, rather predictably, in Ince, who was booked for throwing the ball away and will now miss the game against Newcastle on 28 December after collecting five bookings this season.

On 70 minutes, Wimbledon should have put the match beyond Liverpool's reach. Hughes was put through by Gayle whose square pass reached Efan Ekoku. His shot from six yards, however, was smothered by James.

Blackwell saved Wimbledon with a series of lunging tackles as the match drew to a close and Kinnear should be grateful for a clearance off the line in the last five minutes.

Wimbledon and Liverpool are two of the Premiership's most confounding teams. Wimbledon's recent League form has consisted of alternate victories and defeats while Liverpool have now lost their last three games, their worst run since 1954. Gerard Houllier, the Liverpool manager, expressed his disappointment after the match: "In football sometimes the results are not coming when you expect them."

Goal: Earle 48 (1-0).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Hughes, Ardley, Earle, Euell; Leaburn (Ekoku, 62), Gayle (Roberts, 76). Substitutes not used: Kimble, Heald (gk), Kennedy.

Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Babb, Staunton, Carragher; Berger, Heggem, Ince, Redknapp, Bjornebye; Owen, Fowler (Reidle, 60). Substitutes not used: Kvarme, Matteo, Nielsen, Gerrard.

Bookings: Liverpool Ince.

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Man of the match: Blackwell.

Attendance: 26,080.

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