Football: Fowler to the fore as Liverpool step up the pace

Liverpool 3 Wimbledon 1
A BORE of millennial proportions burst unexpectedly into life in the second half as Liverpool kept up their pursuit of a Premiership top four locked in combat elsewhere. For almost an hour the very idea of a goal seemed an insult to the purity of the tedium on offer. A stupefying nonentity of a first half could surely get no worse but in the opening minutes of the second it did, with the excitement confined to Wimbledon winning their first corner.

But then Patrik Berger, lively only by comparison with the lifeless spectacle going on around him, won a corner, too. Danny Murphy floated it over and Wimbledon unaccountably allowed it to drop on the edge of their six-yard box, where Michael Owen stole in to half-volley the ball into the net.

It was Owen's fourth goal in three matches since he began to rediscover his sharpness and, if ever one goal looked likely to decide a match, this was it. Not so; within six minutes Wimbledon had equalised with their first serious attempt on goal, Kenny Cunningham flighting the ball in from the right and Marcus Gayle meeting it with a downward header that bounced up and through the goal-line defence.

The goal that deserved to win the game arrived as part of this headlong rush four minutes later. Hermann Hreidarsson handled the ball a few yards outside the penalty area and Berger's left-footed free-kick curled past a bemused Neil Sullivan.

Wimbledon could have had another equaliser when, in a near replay of their goal, Cunningham's cross was met firmly by the substitute, Carl Cort. This time, however, the header went narrowly wide.

As if warned that this reawakened game might have another twist in its tale, Liverpool made safe the points that took them into fourth place at tea-time a minute later.

Robbie Fowler had replaced Murphy after the first Liverpool goal, easing his way back after a nagging ankle injury. Eleven minutes from time another substitute, Vladimir Smicer, flicked on a long clearance and Fowler looped his header over Sullivan for his first goal since the end of August and his 150th for the club.

It was a bonus for spectators who were due an apology for the first half, during which Liverpool had an abundance of possession in and around the Wimbledon box without ever looking like scoring. The only time a breakthrough looked likely was when Titi Camara ran at the Wimbledon defence and, although his touch often let him down, he did at least manage the rarity of a shot on target, saved low down by Sullivan.

Understandably, Gerard Houllier preferred to dwell on the second half and the result rather than the barren first. "It was a good way of leaving the century," the Liverpool manager said. "It was a very, very good performance, because Wimbledon are a difficult side to beat away from home. We knew it would be a tactical battle and we had to keep our patience."

Goals: Owen (58) 1-0; Gayle (64) 1-1; Berger (68) 2-1; Fowler (80) 3- 1.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Westerveld; Heggem, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Murphy (Fowler, 59), Gerrard, Carragher, Berger; Camara (Song, 90), Owen (Smicer, 64). Substitutes not used: Staunton, Nielsen (gk).

Wimbledon (4-1-3-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Hreidarsson, Thatcher, Kimble (Cort, 33); Andersen; Earle, Euell, Gayle; Badir (Francis, 76), Leaburn (Andresen, 76). Substitutes not used: Heald (gk), Willmott.

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe).

Bookings: Wimbledon: Badir, Euell.

Man of the match: Berger.

Attendance: 44,107.