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Saturday 3 December 2016

Dublin bench press the way to final

Blues show strength in adversity to blitz Mayo, but Kerry are a tougher nut to crack

Kevin McManamon celebrates scoring his goal
Kevin McManamon celebrates scoring his goal
Dublin fans applaud Diarmuid Connolly as he leaves the field

So it all ended in decisive seven-point victory, Dublin playing keep-ball in the last ten minutes while picking their moments to punish a wilting Mayo on the counter.

Just imagine if they had managed this same feat six days earlier. Seven points clear beyond the hour, killing off the game with clinical efficiency ... wouldn't life be a whole lot simpler?

But you can't turn the clock back and what transpired in between has not alone convulsed the GAA but left Dublin a whole lot wiser.

The summer-long accusation - here lies a team untested in the Croke Park cauldron - has been dropped following the discovery of new evidence. Now, you could argue, they've been tested too much.

And next up Kerry.

Recover

Dublin have just 13 more days to prepare for the All-Ireland final, and they'll need every one of them to physically recover and mentally plot for the holders.

They've been in the shop window for two weekends, Éamonn Fitzmaurice watching and absorbing. He'll have spied chinks, even while admiring Dublin's response to a third-quarter crisis.

Put it this way: would Kerry contrive the same basic attacking errors (Lee Keegan's undercooked shot, to go five clear, the most damaging) that stalled Mayo's momentum just when Dublin were on the ropes? Doubtful.

And would their defensive system crumble and cough up three goals in 11 minutes? Again doubtful, albeit less so given the vulnerability at the heart of a defence exposed but not punished by Tyrone.

As for Dublin's defence, for the most part this season there has been a pragmatism and steel that was so criminally absent against Donegal 12 months ago. But they haven't faced a challenge like Kerry just yet: after 70 minutes in the company of James O'Donoghue, Colm Cooper et al, we'll truly know.

Jim Gavin was quick out of the blocks to claim the underdog status, insisting "I haven't seen much of them" (pull the other one, Jim) while suggesting "it's all uphill for us" in the final.

Maybe so, but management and players will have learned more over the past two weeks than in the previous four months. As Philly McMahon, who reinforced his reputation as Aidan O'Shea's least favourite marker while earning the surreal distinction of being Dublin's joint-top scorer with 1-2, summed it up: "We learned from our mistakes and that's the big learning curve going into the All-Ireland final."

Gavin has surely learned a multitude too. This will not be an easy final team to pick - partly because several starters are labouring, even more so because several subs are screaming for promotion.

In the latter category, Michael Darragh Macauley responded to his latest starting omission in the most defiantly positive manner conceivable.

Dublin were four down when he entered the fray and quickly set about transforming the midfield equilibrium. Fittingly he was first onto the kickout break for the move that culminated in Bernard Brogan's toe-poking poacher's goal after 55 minutes - the moment that forever altered the mood of this semi-final replay. Then he cleanly caught the Mayo restart that ultimately led, seven passes later, to McMahon's bundled goal.

Soul-searching

Meanwhile, Kevin McManamon did what Kevin Mac invariably does - offered penetration and ambition from the bench. Cue another 1-1 haul, doubtless prompting some more soul-searching for the boss: does he spring him from the start or ensure he has McManamon in the home straight, there to try and bury Kerry for the third time in five seasons?

Michael Fitzsimons and Alan Brogan also had positive if more understated impacts off the bench. Fitzsimons helped to steady the defensive ship after replacing Jonny Cooper, whose recent dip in form continued when he fouled Andy Moran for a tap-over free and then allowed the Mayo sub outfield him in the lead-up to Cillian O'Connor's 42nd minute goal.

Overall, though, Dublin upped their disciplinary game: they coughed up 0-6 in frees compared to 1-8 the previous weekend.

Elsewhere, Gavin must think long and hard about midfield: Brian Fenton came of age on Saturday but can he afford to hold Macauley in reserve against arguably the best duo in the country?

Up front, meanwhile, we witnessed Paddy Andrews' finest hour, another strong first half showing from Ciarán Kilkenny and further evidence of Bernard Brogan's pivotal importance, not just as executioner but creator too.

Up-and-down

Countering that, Paul Flynn's up-and-down summer continued with another below-par display, one magnificent long-range pass (to the fouled Brogan) aside.

Yet Flynn will surely start on Sunday week whereas Dean Rock is the candidate most at risk. It remains to be seen whether Gavin keeps faith with a freetaker whose ongoing struggles in open play have now morphed into previously absent deadball doubts (he landed two but missed two from distance).

One other member of the front six was also dogged by an unusually fumbling touch: then again, Diarmuid Connolly, of all people, could cite mitigating circumstances.

Enough has been said at this stage about the decision of player and county to push out the appeals envelope to the 'nth' degree.

Suffice to say, for all Gavin's mantra that Dublin "engaged with the process", that process is now a busted flush that simply must be reformed and streamlined over the winter months.

Before then, however, there's the small matter of a Dublin/Kerry final. Yowzee.

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