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Saturday 23 September 2017

Mayo have talent to push Kingdom to the limit again

All-Ireland SFC semi-final Mayo v Kerry (Tomorrow, Live RTE2/Sky Sports Arena 3.30)

Mayo will be hoping Lee Keegan can roam forward. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo will be hoping Lee Keegan can roam forward. Photo: Sportsfile

Up until 2pm on the August Bank Holiday Monday, the presumption was almost universal: Kerry had one foot in the All-Ireland final.

No matter what transpired that afternoon, be it a rousing sequel success for Roscommon or Mayo muddling on through as they've been doing for most of this summer, the semi-final would be Kerry's to lose.

And maybe that's still the case. But …

Within minutes of the replay throw-in, you got a sense that Mayo were different. Top-of-the-ground different.

Yes, the Rossies were porous and ragged and like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights, dazed and confused and just waiting to be streamrolled … but there was still so much to admire about their rampant rivals.

Midfielder David Moran is a key figure for Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile
Midfielder David Moran is a key figure for Kerry. Photo: Sportsfile

Mayo ticked all the clichéd boxes required of a team with serious All-Ireland pretensions. Hard running off the shoulder? Check. Boundless energy? Check. Serious heat on the opposition kickout? Check. Going for the jugular at the first sniff of goal? Quadruple check.

They won by 22 points but, as Stephen Rochford was at pains to point out at Mayo's semi-final press night, the margin was insignificant. Far more importantly, a team that had been spluttering in fits and starts all summer, mixing bouts of high intensity with alarming inertia, kept on going for the full 70.

True, with a shade more clinical efficiency they could have doubled their four-goal tally … but they never took the foot off Roscommon throats.

Back in the ball game? On this evidence, yes. But is this one-off turkey shoot the most reliable yardstick?

Therein lies the conundrum of trying to second-guess Mayo now that the bar is about to be raised beyond all previous opposition heights this summer.

Kerry's own quarter-final against Galway was typical of the green-and-gold, last-eight species. The match itself had an almost anaesthetic quality; victory against outclassed underdogs was never in doubt; Kerry annoyed some of their own and teased all of their chief rivals with flashes of frailty, especially in defence.

But again, what can you decipher from all of that? Time and again we've seen Kerry amble into a semi-final only to unleash the ultra-c ompetitive beast within.

It doesn't always suffice: they lost classic contests with Dublin in 2013 and again last year but, were they to emulate that performance level here, then Mayo might well struggle to match it.

Kerry's A-game centres on David Moran's ability to set the midfield agenda and to open the supply routes to James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney inside, either by working through the lines or by going more direct to Kieran Donaghy.

It was clear that they identified a glaring weakness in Galway's full-back line and opted for aerial onslaught. Cue a reminder of Donaghy's enduring capacity to cause carnage, something a succession of Mayo defenders know only all too well.

Maybe it's a good thing, for Mayo, that Kerry's 6'5" giant was so prominent the last day; Stephen Rochford will surely know that stopping Donaghy is every bit as crucial as stifling the twin menace of Geaney and O'Donoghue.

Shadow

Whether that entails Donal Vaughan as Donaghy's constant shadow and/or the presence of a big midfielder sweeping in front, only throw-in will tell us.

In the rush to stymie Kerry's multiple threats, however, it's important that Mayo don't neglect the very qualities that brought them firmly back into All-Ireland contention.

If they're overly defensive, and the likes of Keith Higgins, Paddy Durcan and the presumably restored Lee Keegan aren't given licence to run at Kerry, then it's hard to conceive how Mayo can win this game.

Cork and Galway have already exposed the vulnerability of Kerry's defence to th is very tactic, creating numerous goal chances only to spurn them all.

The good news for Kerry is that Éamonn Fitzmaurice has been given three weeks to address this weakness, and a fortnight to plot specifically for Mayo's raiders.

The role of his non-flashy, workmanlike half-forwards will be pivotal. And, as history has shown, Kerry are never too averse to fouling out the field as a means to justifying the All-Ireland end game.

In summary, the reigning league champions deserve to be favourites because of their more consistent form graph; their more obviously potent inside attack; the depth of their bench; and maybe their innate capacity to get the job done.

But this is no sure thing: Mayo can hurt them with their physicality, their running power, their voracious hunger and maybe their perfectly timed momentum too. If Keegan, Tom Parsons, Aidan O'Shea and Cillian O'Connor are in the zone, don't be surprised if the rest take their lead.

Fasten your seat belts.

ODDS: Kerry 8/15 Draw 8/1 Mayo 21/10

VERDICT: Kerry

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