Thursday 27 October 2016

After a summer of cakewalks, Dubs to learn the meaning of a true test ... and live to tell the tale

Big Match Preview: Dublin v Mayo, Croke Park, tomorrow 3.30pm (LIVE RTE 2 and SKY SPORTS)

Cillian O’Connor has been aided by the move of Aidan O’Shea to full-forward for Mayo this year
Cillian O’Connor has been aided by the move of Aidan O’Shea to full-forward for Mayo this year

Pat Spillane was on 'Morning Ireland' yesterday, there to discuss the looming heavyweight collision of east and west, and started with an admission that he had been flip-flopping all week about the outcome.

Then the Kerry legend proceeded to flip-flop some more for the next several minutes, before eventually edging towards Dublin.

On this occasion, we can empathise fully with 'Topsy-Turvy of Templenoe' ... in this summer of the cakewalk, Dublin/Mayo is one of those rare events where you'll wake up one morning confident of a Sky Blue dawn but turn off the lights convinced the horizon is turning green and red.

Enough of the fence-sitting, who's it to be?

Back in May, we couldn't see beyond Dublin. They had won the league - again. Moreover, having absorbed the ultimate harsh lesson against Donegal last August, there could be no possibility of hubris this summer.

Dublin would be focussed like never before. They were no longer defending champions, so hunger would not be an issue. And crucially, they looked a more tactically astute collective: still wedded to an attacking philosophy but without the kamikaze kink that contributed to last year's spectacular unravelling.

Here's the funny-peculiar thing: since completing their NFL hat-trick, the Blues have kept on winning ... their hot streak now extends to nine matches, a run coincidentally kickstarted by their 14-point rout of a shambolic Mayo last March. Moreover, the margins of SFC victory have been beyond emphatic - averaging at almost 17 points per game.

And yet, the longer summer has gone on, the less convincing has Dublin's case appeared. Much of this, true, isn't their fault.

The problem is that they still haven't been remotely tested whereas their chief rivals, Mayo and Kerry, have.

Specifically, Mayo's new management duo has addressed several key weaknesses. Midfield mobility - an obvious issue against the king of restarts, Stephen Cluxton - has been improved with the return of a stronger and more consistent Tom Parsons.

This has facilitated Aidan O'Shea's reinvention at full-forward, transforming Mayo's attacking game-plan as well as lessening the burden on Cillian O'Connor.

Finally, the Achilles heel of a full-back line that leaks too many goals was addressed via smart tactics and Barry Moran's deployment as a sweeper against Donegal.

What works one day, however, may not work the next. Dublin are faster, more athletic and far more prolific than Donegal. They are every bit as physical, too: the prosecution now enters the 2015 version of Jack McCaffrey, with his phenomenal ball-stripping ability in the tackle.

Valid questions remain about midfield (given Michael Darragh Macauley's shaky starting status); the form of some stellar campaigners (such as Paul Flynn); how they'll cope with the O'Shea threat; but especially about their journey. Are they really prepared for Mayo's likely onslaught?

Four weeks since their last 'test' against Fermanagh, will they be rusty ... or primed to explode? We think the latter, but nothing here will surprise us.

Odds: Dublin 4/7 Draw 17/2 Mayo 15/8

Verdict: Dublin

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