WHEN Gerard Houllier was first asked about the risk factor of recruiting Emile Heskey, he fixed his inquisitor with a steely glare and insisted he doesn't gamble. Only the stubborn doubted him then and have done since. Only the foolish will doubt him now.
His unshakeable faith was again rewarded as Heskey left an indelible print upon a game Liverpool should have won at a canter, but in which they ultimately edged past Wimbledon.
That they won - and there was no disputing their right to three more precious points - was all important. The bonus is the five-point gap which now exists between themselves and their Champions League rivals.
It was a victory that owed much to the defensive solidity Liverpool now exude and, in the end, everything to do with the £11m striker whose thinning band of detractors can no longer poke fun at his scoring record with any hint of satisfaction.
There was always the nagging suspicion that, with all due respect to Leicester City, once deployed in a better team alongside better players, the rough edges which exist in Heskey's game would gradually be smoothed down and polished up.
Once in either half he embellished the theory confirming Liverpool's superiority in the kind of fixture which has in previous seasons produced more pitfalls than plaudits.
The lead arrived far later than it should have, on 36-minutes, and was sparked by a series of over-zealous challenges from Wimbledon, who having spent the first half-an-hour chasing shadows predictably resorted to trying to hack lumps out of their opponents.
Perhaps previously, the prospect of standing toe-to-toe with the so-called 'Crazy Gang' would have been enough to turn those in red shirts into shrinking violets.
Instead, the Class of 2000 simply rolled up their sleeves, dug-in and gave as good as they got. It was the kind of true grit and channelled aggression that had Houllier wearing a smile of satisfaction at the final whistle.
Propelling themselves into tackle after tackle, they emerged triumphant from yet another confrontation as Michael Owen spun away from one lunge at his ankles.
In an instant he released Heskey, who hared away from the posse of markers left trailing in his wake and buried an emphatic finish beyond the exposed Neil Sullivan.
"He learns quickly," offered a deadpan Houllier in reference to the almost identical chance after 11-minutes which his newest recruit had rolled tamely onto the keeper's legs.
Heskey's celebration told its own story. Kicking off a boot which he sent into orbit, he was mobbed in front of the masses of visiting supporters who made 'Spot the Wimbledon fan' a testing half-time exercise.
The advantage was no more than Liverpool deserved following a half in which Sullivan was forced to repel a glut of shots, most noticeably from the influential Dietmar Hamann who cleverly used the marauding Owen as a decoy to elicit a finger-tip stop.
Indeed, it was almost as if their measure of total control prompted the spell of complacency immediately after the break which offered Egil Olsen's side a glimmer of hope up to then they had scarcely deserved.
Dominic Matteo needed to be alert to whip a ball off Andreas Lund's toes, before Sander Westerveld palmed away a Michael Hughes effort and from the resulting corner Andy Roberts smashed a volley a yard wide.
The threat of an unlikely comeback appeared to have been nullified, however, when Heskey grabbed his second goal of the game on 64 minutes. He capped another impressive display, characterised by his trademark pace and power and also unselfishness, by rising highest on the edge of the six-yard box to divert Patrik Berger's corner into the far corner of the net.
Berger should have left the scoreline more accurately resembling the flow of the game within seconds, but mis-cued horribly with only Sullivan to beat after being set-up by the combined efforts of substitute Smicer and Owen.
And from then on in, from what should have been 3-0, it all became a little too close for comfort.
The incessant chants recognising not just the efforts of Houllier, but also Phil Thompson this time, were rudely interrupted on 70-minutes when substitute Martin Andresen's close-range header pierced Westerveld's defences after Wimbledon had rescued an over-hit corner.
"The true face of Wimbledon came back at the end," said Houllier, whose counterpart's famous wellington boots will come in handy as he tries to lead his side from out of the mire them find themselves in.
"As soon as they scored the goal lifted them up and gave them a bit of confidence.
"Then that was the Wimbledon I had expected."
Like the initiative, Liverpool proceeded to give the ball away and waste the numerous opportunities they had to spark back into life on the break.
But the finale was not like the jittery times of a few seasons ago where the awful thought of a late equaliser were all too often actually realised.
Westerveld astutely grabbed a Hughes drive, but with Sami Hyypia and Stephane Henchoz an impregnable barrier Wimbledon's bid to rescue a point was always looked likely to be a forlorn one.
Whenever a ball was played into the penalty area, the towering figure of the Finn or the Swiss defender was on hand to head it away.
"Before kick-off I told the players we have 540 minutes to play and every minute must be Champions League stuff," said a delighted Houllier afterwards.
Now make that 450 minutes.
WIMBLEDON (4-4-2): Sullivan, Juup, Blackwell (Leaburn 87), Hreidarsson, Cunningham; Cort, Andersen, Hughes; Gayle, Lund (Andresen 58). Subs: Heald, Badir, Francis.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Carragher, Hyypia, Henchoz, Matteo; Thompson (Smicer 63), Gerrard, Hamann, Berger; Heskey (Camara 78), Owen (Murphy 83). Subs: Nielsen, Heggem.
BOOKINGS: Andersen (foul 16), Blackwell (foul 35).
REFEREE: Mike Riley (Leeds).
© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo