Ciaran Whelan: Donegal's fire looks out and winning back Sam looks unlikely
Gallagher's men looking limp, Kerry are teed up nicely for semi spot, Dubs Mayo yet show full hand
THE shadow boxing is over, the provincial championships have been decided and the real business is about to begin.
Some teams have shown their full hand whilst others may still be bluffing in the hope they can strike when all the cards are on the table.
Croke Park and the beginning of August is on the horizon and all the big contenders for Sam Maguire are still standing. No surprise there!
And if anything we have learned in recent weeks that the gap between the main contenders and the chasing pack has widened which will lead to the usual debate about championship structures.
Presently, the All-Ireland champions Kerry are probably sitting prettier than most. Two tough provincial finals under their belt against Cork, and a quarter-final to come against either Westmeath or Fermanagh.
Taking into consideration that Mayo, Donegal and Dublin are all now on the other side of the draw, éamonn Fitzmaurice will have cleared his diary for the months of August and September.
Kerry got the fundamentals right against Cork in that they protected their full-back line, dominated midfield and they were able to change the focus of their attacking plan mid-stream. Simple and effective changes which put Cork to the sword, who as predicted were unable to vary their style of play from the drawn game.
Whilst Kerry and Dublin are on top of the betting market once again, the Ulster teams are still a formidable force in this year's championship. There is a distinct possibility that four Ulster teams could be in the last-eight come August if Fermanagh prevail this weekend against Westmeath.
Donegal have suffered the biggest setback to their All-Ireland ambitions in recent weeks. There was something not right about Donegal last weekend against Monaghan.
The lack of intensity and the lack of desire that we have associated with this team was missing for some reason. For a team that is a long time on the road with a lot a miles of the clock their big players like Karl Lacey and Michael Murphy looked out of sorts. Granted you can argue that they have had the toughest road to travel from the preliminary round back in May but in the modern game I do not buy that as an excuse.
Jimmy McGuinness developed a culture of hard work in recent years. The plaudits that came Rory Gallagher's way in recent weeks may not be justified and it is hard to see where Donegal have improved in 2015.
I would not write them off just yet because as a collective team we know they have a big performance in them. However, if the fire is still not burning in their key players I cannot see them beating Galway, Mayo, Dublin and possibly Kerry to win back Sam.
As Ulster champions, Monaghan deserve huge credit. Malachy O'Rourke's familiarity with Donegal meant they dictated all the key one-on-one battles and tactically they over-powered Donegal particularly in the first half.
Whilst they are now talking a big game and spinning that an Ulster title is just a step on their journey, they have plenty to consider. Despite a poor Donegal performance they could have a got a result from the game. Monaghan cracked the Donegal nut but not scoring for 25 minutes of the second half will not be good enough going forward.
Tyrone more than likely wait in a quarter-final that will really question the Monaghan credentials - are they good enough to pass the Croke Park test?
On the western seaboard, the progression of Mayo comes with a health warning. Granted their performance against a poor Sligo team was executed ruthlessly. However, Sligo's weaknesses were all to evident to see coming into this game and with Mayo operating at a different level they simply blew them away.
The Aidan O'Shea 'cat' is out of the bag now with Mayo looking to change their attacking strategy. Certainly on recent evidence O'Shea will take some stopping and if anything, the attention that he gets from the opposition will create more space and opportunities for Mayo's other key forward Cillian O'Connor.
If Mayo are finally to land the Sam Maguire, they need to have versatility. However, there are so many strengths in what they do well and how they approach the game. Along with Dublin they are the only team that may not have played their full hand just yet.
Mayo continue to go man-for-man in defence and to date have not shown any new desire to protect their full-back line. This means they concede one or two goals per game but they back themselves to beat the opposition on the scoreboard. It is questionable whether this approach will suffice against the big contenders. Only time will tell if Mayo have learned the lessons of the past.
The time for talking is over and the real bouts are just around the corner.