Teenage prodigy Michael Owen lifted Liverpool to a hard-earned point against the bogeymen of Wimbledon - though the price was a bad knee injury for defender Neil Ruddock.
Owen's team-mates may hate their annual trek to south London but the 17-year-old with stardom in his boots loves Selhurst Park. He scored on his debut as a substitute against the Dons on his FA Carling Premiership debut last May and repeated the feat from the penalty spot in the 72nd minute on the opening day of a season which looks set to rocket him to astonishing heights. He filled in for the injured Robbie Fowler with a confidence that borders on arrogance and has the same willingness to take men on as Steve McManaman. He slotted in alongside German World Cup star Karlheinz Riedle without any hint of nerves or diffidence against a defence which usually intimidates even the most battle-hardened forwards.
Had Owen shown a shade more composure, he would have opened his account much earlier, grabbing at his shots after weaving into great positions and hitting the side of the netting instead of its back. He is brave too, surviving Chris Perry's cynical challenge from behind in the 40th minute after the ball had gone, leaving the youngster in agony on the floor and the Liverpool bench leaping to their feet in a fury as neither referee nor his nearest assistant saw the challenge.
He continued as enthusiastically after treatment and at this rate Fowler will struggle to win back his place at Anfield and could even see the precocious youngster burst onto the England scene, though Glenn Hoddle will be anxious to protect him as much as he has with David Beckham and Paul Scholes. Liverpool had cause to thank him on a ground where they have now not won for seven visits and were heading towards a repeat of the defeat that cost them the title last season.
Wimbledon broke through in the 55th minute after Phil Babb cut down Neil Ardley five yards outside of the visiting area, and was duly booked. The Liverpool wall lined up but was rendered useless by Marcus Gayle's thunderous right foot free kick, which burst past them and in off the underside off the crossbar by James' right-hand post. But they drew level when Vinnie Jones clattered into the back of Riedle to give away the crucial spot kick.
It is early days for a season which will run into mid-July next year with the World Cup, but Liverpool's £10million summer revamp gives them a more solid look.
Paul Ince has been confirmed as Liverpool's `Guv'nor', taking over as captain from John Barnes who was dropped along with Jason McAteer. His new maturity was demonstrated midway through the first half at the height of his bruising midfield battle with Jones. The Welsh international flew in with boot raised head high and thumped into the England star who admirably went after the loose ball and not the floored Jones.
Roy Evans was without his other big new signing, former Norwegian Don Oyvind Leonhardsen, who was injured along with Fowler, Patrik Berger, Bjorn Kvarme and Jamie Redknapp. And they lost Ruddock who limped away for prolonged treatment on his knee, but could not continue and made way for Steve Harkness in the 23rd minute.
But with Michael Thomas operating in front of the back three, Liverpool's wing-backs and the free-roaming Steve McManaman, shadowed well by Kenny Cunningham, gave the Dons plenty of problems without finding much punch.
Wimbledon, so prominent for much of last season, showed they have the resilience for what manager Joe Kinnear reckons will be a season ``not for the faint-hearted.'' Their chances were few, though David James had to react smartly to seize Gayle's flicked header from Alan Kimble's cross.
Thomas produced the most penetrating pass, threading it through the Wimbledon defence to put Owen free on the right but for the second time he grabbed at his shot and found only the sidenetting.
Ince showed a flash of his attacking drive when he pounded through the middle, McManaman taking up the initiative and slipping in Bjornebye clear on the left. But the Liverpool players shook their heads as the Norwegian slammed his shot into the sidenetting.
Riedle looked at ease at this level, teasing the home defence before unleashing a low 25 yard shot that Sullivan could not hold. McManaman had the best chance before the breakthrough, timing his spin free onto Jones' pass to perfection to make a yard or two of space in the area but Sullivan superbly saved at close range.
Wimbledon maybe should have snatched victory back at the death but after Andy Clarke's great run to get round the back and pull Liverpool out of shape, his cross found the unmarked Ardley who whacked it back across the face of goal.
Copyright - Press Association