D-Day for the Dubs ... and for Ger too
The difficulty in trying to second-guess what will happen in Páirc Uí Rinn this evening can be summed up by posing the following question: "Who do you trust more, Cork or Dublin?"
By the time we reach the end of this preview, we'll still be grappling for an answer.
The bookies are favouring Cork. Which is fair enough, except to say they cannot be priced at 4/6 on the strength of their six-month results graph.
In league and championship they've played seven, lost six. That's a borderline calamity for a county of Cork's standing.
Would they be favourites if the game was in Parnell Park? Quite possibly not.
Instead, Dublin are Leeside-bound, heading for the Rebel heartland of their manager. No more than his year-one Cork counterpart, Kieran Kingston, Ger Cunningham is a manager feeling the weight of pressure.
That's the nature of the bainisteoir beast, where patience is not a virtue and where back-to-back championship meltdowns are not readily accepted.
Dublin's league form was certainly better than Cork's (three regulation victories out of five, then a quarter-final exit to Limerick) without suggesting they had suddenly eradicated their infuriating penchant for performance extremes.
Hammering Wexford in May told us little about their readiness for what came next. Being overwhelmed by Kilkenny in the second half of their Leinster semi-final told us a lot more. Very little of it encouraging.
That provides the context for Cunningham's team announcement yesterday, showing three changes. Conor Dooley is the fall-guy for Dublin's puckout woes against the Cats, with a recall for his Ballyboden club-mate Gary Maguire.
Meanwhile, there are two changes in attack, as Paul Ryan and the fit-again Mark Schutte are restored at the expense of Darragh O'Connell and 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan, with Daire Plunkett reverting from wing-forward to midfield.
Given the do-or-die nature of this contest, we cannot be entirely sure if Dublin will line out exactly as per programme.
Likewise, it remains to be seen if the fatal fissure against Kilkenny - an inability to win their own puckouts when forced long - has been resolved by one change of goalkeeper and a slightly modified half-forward division, with David Treacy now named at No 12.
The good news for our moody Blues? Tonight they aren't facing such aerial ball giants as Cillian Buckley, Kieran Joyce and Paul Murphy.
Too often in the recent past, Cork's defence has been positively sieve-like - epitomised by their abject 4-21 to 2-17 loss to Dublin in Croke Park last March. That was one of five straight defeats in Division 1A. They only retained their top-flight status by dint of perfect timing, winning the match that mattered most, a relegation play-off against Galway.
If Kingston was gearing everything towards a May 22 date with Tipperary, you'd never have guessed. Whatever about the tactics of employing a sweeper to nullify Séamus Callanan's goal threat, Cork's location of the spare man and how they (mis)used possession coming out of defence was exacerbated by a near-total malfunction in the forward line.
Not alone did Cork not create or score enough (just 0-13) they didn't work remotely hard enough. That's why they have reached this watershed juncture of a potentially season-defining showdown with Dublin.
Here's the rub. Cork will have learned from Kilkenny's success in short-circuiting Cunningham's favoured game-plan of feeding his corner-backs with short puckouts. If Plan A isn't an option, Dublin must be ready and more equipped to win Plan B possession.
Mark Schutte's return to fitness is a big ball-winning plus, albeit closer to goal. They need the mercurial Ryan to rediscover the form that lit up the summer of 2013.
The only trouble, for Dublin, is that Cork possess even more forwards capable of shooting the lights out if the mood takes them. Patrick Horgan, Séamus Harnedy and Conor Lehane were all well off their usual levels in Thurles last month; could there be a scoring backlash coming?
Cork backs are to the wall. Their players simply must deliver for a partisan but far-from-patient faithful. If they start well, that home advantage could prove a tie-breaker.
ODDS: Cork 4/6 Draw 10/1 Dublin 6/4
DUBLIN: G Maguire; E O'Donnell, C O'Callaghan, O Gough; S Barrett, L Rushe, C Crummey; D Plunkett, J McCaffrey; R O'Dwyer, N McMorrow, D Treacy; P Ryan, E Dillon, M Schutte.
SHc Qualifier: Cork v Dublin (Páirc Uí Rinn, Tonight 7.0, Live Sky Sp 5)