A SUPERB display by Neil Sullivan in front of Wimbledon's biggest crowd of the season - 26,080 - inspired the home team to their fourth consecutive victory at Selhurst Park over a Liverpool side who have lost eight of their last 11 matches.
Sullivan made four outstanding saves and while the one which prevented Michael Owen equalising with a 78th-minute penalty received more applause, it was easier than any of the quartet.
The Scottish international had previously saved excellently to deny Patrik Berger twice, Owen and Vegard Heggem. The latter's shot was deflected and Sullivan twisted to paw the ball to safety.
Until Alex Ferguson decides on a successor to Peter Schmeichel, Manchester United will be linked with goalkeepers from here, there and everywhere.
However, Ferguson has in the past praised Sullivan and when the Wimbledon man opted to play for Scotland, Ferguson welcomed him to "the master race." "It's flattering to be linked with such a big club but I just want to play well for Wimbledon," said Sullivan.
Sullivan, like just about every top-class goalkeeper, has an encyclopaedic memory of previous penalties he has faced. When Andy Roberts, making his first contribution to the game after coming on as a substitute, was deemed to have brought down Paul Ince - "a dubious decision," said Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear - Sullivan's mind flashed back to when he faced an Owen penalty last year. "He put it that side on that occasion and I thought he might do the same," said Sullivan. Owen's kick to Sullivan's left was weak and having guessed correctly, the goalkeeper had a relatively simple task to save it.
If Wimbledon felt the penalty was a harsh decision, Liverpool left convinced Robbie Earle was offside when he scored the 48th-minute winner. Marcus Gayle played the ball wide to Michael Hughes whose return pass was mis-hit by Gayle. The ball fell kindly for Earle who steered it past David James from eight yards.
In fact, it looked as if the linesman got it right because Stig Inge Bjornebye was a split-second late in stepping up and in such instances linesmen are instructed to give the benefit of doubt to the attacker. "I just stuck it away, looked at the linesman and his flag was down," said Earle, whose goal put what Kinnear called "my best ever Wimbledon squad" in eighth position in the Premiership.
Liverpool, with one clean sheet in 13 games, are 12th and a place in the revamped European club competitions next season is drifting away as a season which began full of optimism fades towards mediocrity.
To add to their woes, Ince completed an ignominious disciplinary hat-trick with his needless booking for dissent. It was his fifth domestic caution of the season and he will be banned from the match against Newcastle on Dec 28. Ince has already collected bans in Euro 2000 and the UEFA Cup and after he petulantly threw the ball down in the 66th minute when a decision went against him referee Gary Willard had no option other than to show the yellow card.
Liverpool probably deserved a point from a game that rarely rose above ordinary yet these are troubled times for the Anfield club. Robbie Fowler was a pale shadow of the striker spoken of as a 10-million pound player.
Owen should have scored in the 33rd minute when put clear by Heggem but his chip went over not only Sullivan but also the crossbar.
Liverpool thought they had equalised in the 63rd minute when Berger's free-kick found its way through the Wimbledon defensive wall but Sullivan made a fine diving save.
Wimbledon can claim that Efan Ekoku should have made it 2-0 when, with only James to beat, the striker shot straight at the goalkeeper. "Another mighty scalp," said Kinnear. "Long live Superdons."
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