Saturday 22 October 2016

Dubs are so close they can touch it

This promises to be a cliffhanger, but green flag potential and dynamic bench might swing it for the Blues in a battle of inches

Kevin McManamon on the way to scoring Dublin’s third goal in their All- Ireland SFC semi-final replay victory over Mayo
Kevin McManamon on the way to scoring Dublin’s third goal in their All- Ireland SFC semi-final replay victory over Mayo
Kerry forwards Colm Cooper, James O’Donoghue and Kieran Donaghy, who has not been named to start, against the Dubs tomorrow

Mayo may quibble but not too loudly: this year's meandering race for Sam Maguire has been distilled down to the two best teams in the country.

The winners of the last two All-Ireland titles. Two managers who have lost just one championship match apiece during their (almost) three years at the helm. Best of three, then, between Dublin and Kerry, Jim Gavin and Éamonn Fitzmaurice? It kind of feels that way.

So far, so clearcut. Now for the difficult part: trying to decipher the eventual winner.

In many respects it boils down to a subjective hunch because, in objective terms, Dublin and Kerry have so many strengths allowing you to construct what sounds like a compelling case for them.

They also have several potential chinks in the armoury, doubtless dissected by both Gavin and Fitzmaurice over the past fortnight.

In such a battle of inches, it invariably boils down to a multitude of "what if?" scenarios on the day itself.

Just take Dublin, for starters. Notwithstanding last night's official team announcement, will Cian O'Sullivan be fit to take the field and - if so - how will his hamstring survive the rigours of All-Ireland day against Kerry's array of attacking marvels?

Any negative response to those questions could constitute a major advantage for the holders.

Several players who will definitely start have struggled for the stellar form of which they are capable, especially in the Mayo replay when Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly (understandably, given the head-wrecking circumstances of that week) failed to ignite.


Unusually, given he's the youngest member of this illustrious trio, Ciarán Kilkenny has been the most consistent member of the Dublin half-forward line but his more experienced comrades need to step up in September.

And if they do? Kerry's half-back line, which hasn't been their strongest line this summer, could find itself on the back foot. That, in turn, could open up goalscoring windows of opportunity for Dublin closer to goal, the type that Bernard Brogan (current front-runner for Footballer of the Year, having tallied 6-19 from play in six SFC games) has been devouring all summer long. Ultimately, could it all come down to which side raises the most green flags. Quite likely. And strangely, perhaps, given that this Kerry team holds the unique modern-day distinction of scoring seven goals in a single half of August championship football - against Kildare - this could be the very tie-breaking area that swings the All-Ireland towards Dublin.

They have amassed 18 goals in six games. Even if you ignore their first two turkey shoots (against Longford and Kildare) they have tallied nine in their last four games, including five against Mayo.

The good news for Kerry is that Fitzmaurice, a manager hailed for his tactical acumen and pragmatic ability to adjust to each new challenge, has been forewarned about Dublin's prowess in this department.

Likewise, he has witnessed Kerry's own very obvious vulnerability when athletic teams run at them hard through the middle - remember when Cork ripped them open in the drawn Munster final, or how Tyrone did likewise in the semi-final?

Tyrone failed to capitalise, though: one converted penalty was their only reward, as at least four other presentable goal chances went a begging.

Would Brogan or Connolly or Kevin McManamon, whenever he arrives on the scene, be so remiss? Doubtful, going on recent history.


So the onus is on Kerry to block off those central channels through which Dublin, in their full pomp, are so adept at bursting through. A big ask, albeit we shouldn't forget their success in this department against Donegal 12 months ago.

All of the above considered, we won't be remotely surprised if Kerry set up quite defensively from the off. Even though they went thrillingly close in 2013, another shootout is not what this team needs against Dublin.

Their best chance of success is via suffocation, initially at least. By the same token, they must capitalise on whatever midfield advantage they enjoy by putting the squeeze on Stephen Cluxton's kickouts and forcing him to go long far more often than was required against Mayo.

For the record, we do believe the David Moran/Anthony Maher axis has the ball-winning edge on whichever two from three (Brian Fenton, Denis Bastick and Michael Darragh Macauley) are on the field at any one time.

But it's not, necessarily, a decisive advantage - against Tyrone, for example, Moran was well below recent exalted standards. Here, likewise, the likes of Flynn and Connolly could have a huge say in establishing a possession platform for Dublin, while another key factor will be the success of Cluxton's mid-range restarts around his own 45m line. Despite some recent wobbles, Cluxton is unmatched at pinpointing moving targets amid the congestion. By the same token, Kerry have enjoyed some success when targeting this area in the past.

This is but one fascinating plot in what looks an intriguing final script. We haven't even mentioned the statistical weight of history against back-to-back contenders (even if Kerry bucked the trend in 2007). Countering that is the historic rarity of a Kerry team desperate to avoid an unwanted three-in-a-row of championship defeats to Dublin.


The gilt-edged quality - and variety - of Kerry's attack gives them every chance of avoiding that fate, especially if Dublin revert to heedless fouling and back-chatting dissent.

Other conundrums? Will James O'Donoghue loiter with intent closer to goal - or revert to the selfless link man role he performed, so admirably, against Donegal last year and Tyrone last month?

Colm Cooper has lost none of his genius but, post-cruciate and now 32, can he still find the pockets of space in which to punish Dublin? Now that Plan A (route one to Kieran Donaghy) has become Plan B, at what stage will Fitzmaurice turn to his medal-laden bench?

On that score, he arguably has even more options than Gavin. And yet the latter's subs were absolutely central to their belated success against Mayo. Moreover, when it comes to the home straight, they might carry that extra dollop of dynamism to push Dublin into the promised land. Again.

ODDS: Dub evens, Draw 15/2, Kerry 6/5



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