Dublin on mission a Mayo
Blues have the form and fitness - now they must just stay focused
In so many respects, tonight's latest collision of sky blue and green-and-red looks Dublin's to lose.
They've hit the ground running this league, playing with unseasonal sharpness against Kerry last weekend.
By contrast, Mayo's opening (mis)adventure in Páirc Uí Rinn was the ultimate reality check for all those supporters, maybe players too, who presumed that Stephen Rochford would come in, wave his All-Ireland club winning wand … and hey presto!
What we witnessed against Cork were a Mayo team who are behind the curve in terms of physical preparation (understandable, given the late appointment of their new management team) and suffering (far more than Dublin) for the current absence of several pivotal first-team players.
What that tells us about Mayo's genuine strength in depth, or lack thereof, is a moot point. It's quite likely that when you drill down into their squad, there is a quality deficit - especially up front - that partly explains why they have come so close to Sam and yet consistently fallen short.
But we still don't buy the argument, as suggested by Tom Carr on RTÉ Radio last Sunday, that Mayo are now on their way down from the summit and no longer come into the bracket of potential All-Ireland winners.
After all, were they to finally seal the deal next September, they wouldn't be the first battle-hardened/fatigued/allegedly over-the-top team to eventually conquer their All-Ireland demons. Anyone care to remember the Dubs of '95?
That's a long way off, though. It would be foolish to make definitive judgements about Rochford's capacity to make the all-important difference on the strength of one, albeit worrying, league defeat.
It might be equally foolhardy to expect a misfiring repeat in Castlebar this evening (7.0): it's true that Mayo cannot possibly come up to fitness speed in the space of a week, but they'll be hurting after Cork and who is to say there won't be a backlash?
The recent history of Mayo/Dublin meetings in Elverys MacHale Park is awash with such hard-to-fathom results: remember how a then under-fire Mayo demolished Dublin by 12 points in 2012, or how an under-pressure Dublin repaid the compliment last March, winning here by 14.
Still, on the most recent evidence, Dublin look the team to beat here. History will record that they defeated Kerry by two clear goals … the reality is that they ripped them asunder almost everywhere bar the scoreboard.
They scored two goals and, by our conservative estimate, created another seven presentable chances. A couple were fired over for points, two were saved, another two located woodwork, and one was skewed wide.
Now imagine if Diarmuid Connolly pulls the playmaking strings (as he did, sublimely at times, against Kerry) and imagine if Paul Mannion uses his frightening acceleration (as he did, early doors, last weekend) and imagine if Paddy Andrews carries his razor-sharp January form into early February.
Imagine all that … and then think of what Dublin might do to a Mayo full-back line that was left horribly exposed, more than once, during the second half in Cork. They leaked one goal but it could have been three more, when you factor in Rob Hennelly's hat-trick of saves to repel Daniel Goulding's weak penalty, Brian Hurley and Mark Collins.
In his ever-insightful Mayo News column, Billy Joe Padden remarked: "In my view, everything starts from a defensive point of view in modern inter-county football.
"Last Sunday was just the latest example of a Mayo team not protecting their full-back line. I fully expected us to play with seven defenders but that didn't happen."
Hennelly's agility aside, there were just flashes of Mayo promise - most notably how Conor O'Shea (a doppelganger for big brother Aidan) grew into the contest, finishing with 0-3. But Mayo will need a lot more than one O'Shea asking awkward questions.
Speaking of which, it will be intriguing to see if (a) Mick Fitzsimons gets another 70 minutes at full-back, now that Philly McMahon is back from suspension and (b) how he deals with any potential aerial bombardment.
With Rory O'Carroll's No 3 jersey up for grabs, Fitzsimons gave an impressively sticky audition last Saturday - although, not surprisingly, he struggled at times when the ball went in high to Tommy Walsh. Mayo have the modh díreach option in their locker; but then we all recall their misdirected use of same during last season's semi-final saga against the Dubs.
In summary, the evidence of last summer but especially last weekend points to another Dublin victory … but they can't allow presumption to invade their focus, otherwise they could be in line for their own reality check.
* Dublin last night announced an unchanged team whereas Mayo have made two enforced changes, injured duo Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin making way for Aidan O'Shea and Mikey Sweeney.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Mayo 4/1 Draw 10/1 Dub 1/4 VERDICT: Dublin
Mayo: R Hennelly; B Harrison, G Cafferkey, C Crowe; D Vaughan, C Boyle, S Nally; T Parsons, J Gibbons; C O'Shea, A O'Shea, D O'Connor; E Regan, J Doherty, M Sweeney.
Dublin: S Cluxton; J Cooper, M Fitzsimons, David Byrne; J McCaffrey, J Small, Davy Byrne; C O'Sullivan, D Bastick; T Brady, D Connolly, C Kilkenny; P Andrews, D Rock, P Mannion.
Allianz FL Div 1: Mayo v Dublin, MacHale PK, (Tonight 7.0, Setanta Ireland)