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Sunday 4 December 2016

Mayo's quest to be best is still alive

Mayo 2-13 Donegal 0-11

Mayo’s Lee Keegan celebrates scoring his side’s second goal
Mayo’s Lee Keegan celebrates scoring his side’s second goal
Donegal’s Mark McHugh has his goal effort blocked by Mayo’s Barry Moran.

O’Shea’s pivotal goal and new defensive savvy set up fascinating date with Dublin

They are the team that refuses to go away, to slip quietly into a dark corner of regret and recrimination. Mayo, the five-in-a-row Connacht champions, are now five-in-a-row All-Ireland semi-finalists too.

The only goal that matters remains tantalisingly within reach, but if the best of the west are to become the best of all, they'll need to be better than they were in Croke Park on Saturday night.

This is not to decry Mayo's achievement in reducing Donegal to a pale shadow of their All-Ireland peak (2012) or even the heights scaled against Dublin last summer.

It's just that Dublin are next and, if the All-Ireland favourites are to be banished, then the green-and-red will have to be a lot more ruthless and a lot less sloppy than they were over the last 25 minutes here.

Faltering

Not that it mattered to the outcome of a quarter-final that ultimately fell short of expectation, largely because of Donegal's faltering climax to a gruelling campaign.

The end of the line for a battle-weary outfit? As currently constituted, we reckon so ... don't be surprised if a couple of retirements follow.

But Mayo remain firmly, and defiantly, in the race for Sam. If you overlook their carelessness in the home straight (some uncharacteristic deadball misses by Cillian O'Connor, four undercooked attempts from play and Andy Moran's bout of the blinkers instead of passing to the unmarked Diarmuid O'Connor) then there was lots to admire.

Their tackling, from the get-go, was Donegal-esque. Their defensive savvy, reducing their rivals to two or three sniffs at goal, wasn't remotely Mayo-esque. They probed with patience in the first half and then killed the game either side of half-time with a two-goal salvo.

Aidan O'Shea had been engaged in a fascinating first half duel with Neil McGee. After his 3-4 tour de force against a hapless Sligo, this was more like the robustness he can come to expect. He was shading the battle with his All Star shadow, but only marginally: he had claimed the assist for three points but had yet to score himself.

That all changed some 90 seconds into injury-time; ditto the contest, irrevocably.

It all stemmed from Séamus O'Shea's aerial punt in the direction of his outnumbered younger brother, who outfielded his marker, then outmuscled and outmanoeuvred both McGee and sweeper Mark McHugh as the precursor to a clinical daisy-cutter finish.

As goals go, it was magnificent - similar yet different to Michael Murphy's howitzer against Mayo three years ago. It was equally match-defining.

"Satisfying," was O'Shea's post-match synopsis, "because there has been a bit of talk that I have been doing it against lesser opposition. Other players around the place are doing it against better opposition.

"I can do it any day. It doesn't matter who it is. I got a great ball in from Séamie and a few other good balls in during the game, but it was very satisfying," he reiterated.

Thus, Mayo led 1-7 to 0-6 at the break - a more accurate reflection of that first half's ebb and flow.

Then it became a seven-point chasm when another measured Séamus O'Shea delivery picked out Cillian O'Connor, whose offload found Lee Keegan ... the angle and speed of his run took him surging past Frank McGlynn and Mark McHugh, then he floated a left-footed chip beyond Paul Durcan.

A putative point that morphed into a speculative fluke? So surmised the majority of onlookers. But maybe it was a flash of the sublime? "Absolutely - no debate!" Keegan smiled when asked if he meant it.

Not that it mattered: Mayo deserved their morsel of good fortune, if that's what it was.

Their intensity, and focus, was never quite matched by a labouring Donegal.

This was epitomised by that second goal: check out how Odhrán Mac Niallais switches off and thus fails to track Keegan's initial run (he was immediately hauled off). Just as revealing was Kevin McLoughlin's fisted point, all stemming from Karl Lacey (of all people) handpassing a looping hospital pass across his own goalmouth.

This could be a watershed defeat for Donegal, and Rory Gallagher has a job on his hands restoring them to contender status in the face of some likely veteran exits.

Meanwhile, Mayo's new double-act of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly deserve kudos for their tactical acuity.

Leftfield

The kings of gung-ho have paid a heavy price, in the past, for leaving their vulnerable full-back line exposed: here, Barry Moran initially appeared a leftfield choice for the role of sweeping in front of Murphy and Ger Cafferkey, but he had proved an effective screen long before he saved a possible Mark McHugh goal on the hour with a brave and perfectly-timed block.

Murphy was still Donegal's standout player, by some distance, but his goal threat was negligible. Right at the death, he sufficiently riled Kevin Keane to coax a retaliatory swipe from Mayo's replacement full-back. All pretty innocuous, yet costly for a player who stands to miss the semi-final.

Ah yes, Dublin.

Even at this three-week remove, their latest rematch promises so much after a pretty putrid summer.

SCORERS - Mayo: L Keegan 1-2, C O'Connor (2f), J Doherty 0-3 each, A O'Shea 1-0, K McLoughlin 0-2, K Higgins, A Moran, A Freeman 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 0-8 (5f, 1 '45'), C Toye, L McLoone, A Thompson 0-1 each.

MAYO: D Clarke 7; K Higgins 8, G Cafferkey 7, T Cunniffe 6; L Keegan 8, D Vaughan 6, C Boyle 7; S O'Shea 8, B Moran 8; D O'Connor 5, T Parsons 8, J Doherty 7; C O'Connor 6, A O'Shea 8, K McLoughlin 7. Subs: C Barrett 7 for Cunniffe (inj 34), R Hennelly 6 for Clarke (inj ht), P Durcan 6 for Vaughan (bc 54), A Moran 6 for B Moran (blood 61), A Freeman 6 for S O'Shea (65), K Keane 5 for Cafferkey (70).

DONEGAL: P Durcan 6; P McGrath 7, N McGee 7, E McGee 6; R McHugh 6, K Lacey 6, F McGlynn 6; N Gallagher 5, O Mac Niallais 5; C Toye 6, H McFadden 6, M McHugh 6; P McBrearty 5, M Murphy 8, C McFadden 5. Subs: M McElhinney 5 for Toye (ht), A Thompson 6 for N McGee (inj 38), L McLoone 6 for Mac Niallais (39).

WIDES: Mayo 7 (3+4); Donegal 8 (4+4)

YELLOW: Mayo 3 (Doherty 52, D O'Connor 55, McLoughlin 73); Donegal 4 (Durcan 42, E McGee 43, McLoone 61, H McFadden 63)

BLACK: Mayo 1 (Vaughan 53); Donegal 0

RED: Mayo 1 (Keane straight 72); Donegal 0

REF: D Gough (Meath).

ATT: 61,784.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Lee Keegan (Mayo).

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