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Byline: Paul McCARTHY

NOW HERE'S a punt even Michael Owen might have turned down.

There's not much that the only bookie in history to come away skint from a World Cup would refuse but this one was just so ridiculous that Owen, the punter's pal, saw straight through it.

Liverpool to win for the first time in 12 games against a side unbeaten at home and Emile Heskey to score the first goal?

You'd be better off chucking a tenner at the prospect of Pamela Anderson being a virgin, the Tories winning the next Election, or Arsene Wenger seeing a Patrick Vieira booking.

Even those with more money than sense - England footballers as they're better known - would shy away from such a mug bet.

Easy to see why. Liverpool's wretched form had made them either the laughing stock of the Premiership or the saddest sight in the English game, depending on your allegiances.

And Heskey? He hadn't so much been asleep, as he claimed in the week, as comatose. Maxine Peacock shows more life in front of goal than the man feared by fans behind goals throughout the land.

Never the most prolific of marksmen, it was only Heskey's second goal in 19 games and his first since Bolton felt his, ahem, wrath back in balmy September.

Only Moscow Spartak on October 2 had suffered the indignity of a Heskey goal against them since that date so mortgages looked safe for those who thought even Stephane Henchoz at 80-1 was worth backing ahead of him.

Thankfully, he'd promised to wake up and start both fulfilling his potential and taking his share of responsibility, shrugging off the almost catatonic state that had afflicted him.

And, to be fair, a return to his favoured role up front seemed to re-energise him. Heskey won a free-kick wide on the right through sheer damned persistence, Michael Svensson wrestling him to the floor after the pair looked set for three falls or a submission.

John Arne Riise's dead-ball delivery was precise but hardly killing. Except if, like the Southampton defence, you're standing flat-footed and stock still, gently watching the opposition's big striker head home unchallenged.

Heskey didn't have time to think which is just as well considering the absolute pig's ear he made of his next chance when he had all the time and space a more accomplished finisher delights in.

Steven Gerrard's impeccable through-ball decimated the Saints back four, once again freeing Heskey to gallop in on goal.

It was frightening, you could almost hear gears clanking in his head as he wondered whether to draw the keeper, chip it over him, or curl it into the bottom corner. In the end he went for the agricultural welly and simply drove it straight at Antti Niemi.

Mind you, even those accomplished in the fine art of goal-poaching are sometimes made to look like complete novices - and Owen is no exception.

His miss will haunt him longer than any of the pathetic moralising which has gone on this week following the 'revelation' he frittered away a fraction of his World Cup bonus. Some revelation when Owen owns a string of racehorses, not something you indulge in for the mere love of horse flesh.

Again Gerrard was the instigator, finding another huge acre of daylight to feed Riise down the left. The Norwegian's low cross further exposed Southampton's defensive fragility and all Owen had to do was run the ball past Niemi. Instead, he scuffed his shot and sent it scuttling wide of the far post.

At least Owen carved himself a chance, which is more than could be said for his would-be England team-mate James Beattie.

His whole performance mirrored Southampton's. We'd come to the south coast to witness in the flesh the Premiership's latest scoring sensation and the team to shake up the established order, only to leave non-plussed and lukewarm over the credentials of both.

The only impression Beattie made was on Gerrard's shins with an ugly lunge which incredibly went unpunished by ref Stephen Bennett.

The title of pre-match favourites seemed to weigh heavily on Gordon Strachan's side and Liverpool - invigorated and enthusiastic - were rarely troubled and hardly stretched as they brought to an end their worst run for over 40 years.

You can still get an astronomical price about them winning the league and a tasty one for Gerard Houllier's side to finish in the Champions League places but odds mean nothing to the Frenchman this morning, three points everything.

Houllier, under severe pressure on Merseyside after a disastrous run, saluted much-criticised hit-man Heskey for putting Liverpool back on track.

"I've always said we would see the best of Emile after Christmas because the World Cup took an awful lot out of him," said Houllier.

"He has also had a few injuries, which haven't helped, but tonight we saw the Emile Heskey we expect."

Houllier argued that Liverpool's bad run - in November they led the Premiership by seven points yet went into last night's match in eighth spot - owed as much to bad luck as bad performances.

"In a number of matches we should have had three points but we were just unlucky," added the Frenchman, who has pleaded with the Anfield faithful for patience.

"I was pleased with the way we played tonight, and the number of chances we created. In many ways, given the position of ourselves and Southampton in the League, it was a six-pointer, and we were better than them."

Heskey was voted man of the match, and his midfield team-mate Gerrard said: "It's well deserved but why can't he do that every match - that's what I'll be asking him.

"He's had a hard time of late but I'm delighted for him. He's got all the attributes to be a world-class player - let's hope this performance and goal sets him up for the rest of the season."


THE SECOND COMING: Liverpool's Emile Heskey nips in to score the winner with only his second goal in 19 games; Pictures: SOLENT; POOL OF RELIEF: Emile Heskey races away as he celebrates his winning goal against Southampton
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Jan 19, 2003
Previous Article:Football: HE'S N-ODDS ON WINNER; Southampton 0 Liverpool 1 HOULLIER BACKS FAVOURITE HESKEY.

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