Mayo ready to raze Hills
Westerners can dethrone Donegal in final rematch
ALL-IRELAND SFC QUARTER-FINAL
MAYO v DONEGAL
(Croke Park, Tomorrow 4.0, Live TV3)
AMID all the media sparring, the epidemic of mind games, let's remind everyone that – for 70-plus minutes tomorrow – a game of football will break out.
It promises to be high-octane, attritional stuff. With a few on-field eruptions to test the mettle of Joe McQuillan? Quite likely. Defensive? Almost certainly. All leading to the death knell of another champion? Let's take a rain check...
The build-up to tomorrow's main event at HQ has been unusually spiky. We've had the furore over Jim McGuinness's broadside about Mark McHugh's traumatic Ulster final injuries; follow-up comments from James Horan about Donegal being "the leaders" in GAA physicality; and then that strange claim from Rory Gallagher alleging "collusion" between Mayo and Monaghan.
Suffice to say, the repeat of last year's All-Ireland final has turned into a grudge match before a ball is kicked. As for what really matters, the on-field script, this rematch is intriguing on so many levels.
First up, Mayo's happy history under Horan of toppling the holders – they inflicted the fatal wound to Cork in 2011 and Dublin last summer. Yet this hat-trick opportunity comes against a very different backdrop: unlike those previous case studies, Mayo are now lumbered with favouritism. It's not a cross they have carried lightly in the past.
These 'great expectations' are predicated more on Donegal's apparent malaise than Mayo's soaring form graph.
There is a consensus afoot that Mayo have improved as a team since last year when, lest we forget, they caused more problems for Donegal than anyone else (once you exclude their opening 10-minute horror show).
But this theory hasn't been properly road-tested during the most one-sided Connacht championship in living memory, as Mayo eclipsed Galway, Roscommon and London by a cumulative margin of 45 points. What happens when the 'heat' comes on?
Which leads to another question: do Donegal still have the fitness, freshness and hunger to create such hothouse conditions in Croker?
That is the biggest 'if" surrounding this fixture. Against Monaghan, with one or two exceptions, they were collectively miles off the ravenous 2012 standard. The subsequent six-day turnaround to face Laois was always going to be a huge test of Donegal character and they ultimately passed it with six points to spare.
In doing so, however, they scarcely convinced that All-Ireland renaissance is imminent. It was a dog of a game, blighted by tactical negativity (more so from Laois) and endless unforced errors.
Yet there were hints of recovery, too, from a handful of key men. Frank McGlynn (one of the few to stand up against Monaghan's onslaught) showed further signs of rejuvenation. Equally encouraging, after a fraught Ulster final, was the improved form of the McGee brothers in defence, and Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty up front. Laois, though, had squandered a glorious first-half goal chance and still only trailed by two points with 66 minutes on the clock. And Laois are no Mayo.
For Donegal to survive this obvious step-up, they will surely need several more leaders to rediscover last year's pep. Michael Murphy is an obvious example: the skipper has been operating around the half-forwards and midfield but the spark, the lightness of movement, has been marked absent.
It begs the question whether Donegal will parachute him back inside, as they did to stunning effect last September? If that happens, though, surely forewarned Mayo will have bodies back to fill the spaces left so glaringly unattended then.
It's not just Murphy that must find his 2012 mojo. Karl Lacey is another but he's been dogged by injury and resultant match-fitness issues. He was named to start last week but didn't; this time we suspect he will, partly because Donegal need him and partly because the options are so thin.
Mark McHugh isn't named but, even if only 80pc fit, don't be shocked if he actually starts (this time alongside his younger brother/deputy Ryan). David Walsh looked to be battling injury in Carrick-on-Shannon, Ryan Bradley striving vainly for form... we suspect there will be at least one 11th-hour alteration from Donegal.
And Mayo likewise, with some speculation that Chris Barrett might be recalled after his midweek demotion and Keith Higgins reinvented as a floating seventh defender, at the possible expense of Richie Feeney.
This time (unlike last September) our belief is that Mayo's defence will be resolute and their O'Shea midfield axis can establish a platform: Rory Kavanagh was subdued against Laois while Neil Gallagher has shown flashes of last year's All Star form (notably off the bench against Monaghan) but he's had injury issues.
The X-factor about Mayo concerns their attack. Given their recent injury history, can Alan Dillon and Andy Moran provide the craft and leadership required? Cillian O'Connor has the head for battle, presuming his shoulder doesn't let him down.
One Mayo watcher brilliantly summed up their mood of guarded optimism this week when admitting: "I'm still waiting for the inherent pessimism to kick in." Our hunch is that he'll still be waiting at half-five tomorrow.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Mayo 8/13, Draw 15/2, Donegal 7/4