Football: Owen adds spirit to the spice

Wimbledon 1 Gayle 55 Liverpool 1 Owen 71 pen Attendance: 26,106
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The Independent Online
Less spice, more spirit is the new season's message for Liverpool and this was a start. Familiar failings were apparent, notably a wastefulness in front of goal, but at least the title aspirants did not lack resolve after falling a goal behind.

Marcus Gayle's curled free-kick made a nonsense of Wimbledon's inferiority but Liverpool regrouped to rescue their point thanks to a penalty-kick converted by a precocious talent, one promising to figure largely in the English game for years to come.

Frail of frame but strong of heart, 17-year-old Michael Owen stepped up from the posse of experienced international players in the Liverpool ranks to send, with the fearlessness of youth, a sidefooted shot low into Neil Sullivan's left corner as the goalkeeper dived to his right. No spice boy this replacement for the injured Robbie Fowler but one cool kid; in 100-degree heat on the pitch, probably the coolest inside Selhurst Park.

From the outset Owen, his shirt hanging loose on him, displayed a dash of pace and a touch of class to delight all but the Wimbledon defence. He deserved his goal and but for some impetuosity at times, might have had more. Indeed Liverpool should have. Now where have we heard that before?

"We deserved to take the points but you've got to put the ball in the net," said their manager Roy Evans. "Year in, year out we have come here and had a struggle but today we stood up for ourselves. We have played better football sometimes but there was a determination not to get beaten and I was pleased with that."

Much of that was thanks to the presence of Paul Ince, replacing John Barnes as captain, who dominated the midfield contest with Vinnie Jones. Here was early evidence of the more stolid qualities Liverpool have needed. It was not yet the fluent passing side of last season but clingingly - suspiciously - long grass precluded it; first things first.

Karlheinz Riedle also added a touch of nous up front, his intelligent running and canny heading easing much of the burden on Owen. The only cloud for Liverpool, who were unable to give the hamstrung Oyvind Leonhardsen a debut against his former club, was a knee injury that forced a leaner looking Neil Ruddock from the field early in the contest.

Owen impressed from the outset. First - in the first minute, indeed - he danced past Dean Blackwell but missed his kick when looking likely to score. Then he cut inside past Chris Perry only to shoot against the goal stanchion. With Steve McManaman shooting wide, Riedle seeing Sullivan save one shot then a flying header drift wide, it seemed this was to be one of Liverpool's frustrating days.

The suspicion grew early in the second half when McManaman, in a rare escape from his marker Kenny Cunningham, shot too close to Sullivan after his run had been picked out neatly by Rob Jones. It turned into full-blown doubt when Wimbledon took a surprising lead.

Hitherto Wimbledon had threatened only after Ruddock's departure and by their preferred aerial route, Vinnie Jones heading a free-kick wide and the lively Dean Holdsworth nodding Efan Ekoku's flick over the bar. Unable to splash out like their wealthy brethren, Wimbledon had little new to offer. With dear old Vinnie claiming the game's first yellow card, it seemed nothing had changed.

Then came a splendid goal. Neil Ardley cut in from the right and only Phil Babb's bodycheck could stop him. Up stepped Gayle to curl a free- kick from 20 yards out just to the left of centre of goal. Beautifully it sailed in off the underside of the bar.

Back came Liverpool and they almost equalised when Rob Jones perceptively picked out Babb but Sullivan was swiftly off his line. Then came Owen, earning the minimum they deserved after Vinnie Jones had bowled over Riedle.

Heat exhaustion was now setting in, however, and the whistle was a relief. Still, we had seen enough of Owen and Liverpool's variety to believe there might be new spice to them.