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Tuesday 24 October 2017

The Rebel enigma faces Dub trouble

Sky Blues should carry on winning, but Gavin may have some defensive headaches ahead

Dublin’s Paul Flynn who returned to competitive action against Monaghan Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Paul Flynn who returned to competitive action against Monaghan Photo: Sportsfile

League collisions between Dublin and Cork are not exactly what you'd call an endangered species. Tonight's latest 'Clash of the Capitals', real or otherwise, will be the ninth time the counties have met in spring combat over the past six seasons.

Do the maths: that equates to three knockout encounters, Cork winning a remarkable rollercoaster final in 2011, Dublin achieving an even more surreal comeback in the 2014 semi-final, while last year's decider was a Sky Blue cruise of near-embarrassing proportions.

The way things are going, there'll be no knockout repeat next month ...

For while Jim Gavin's men continue merrily in pursuit of four-in-a-row, Cork are - for this week at least - officially in crisis.

Bizarre

Last weekend's bizarre result from Páirc Uí Rinn must be the inevitable starting point for any pre-match debate. To lose at home to a gung-ho Roscommon side that had already beaten Kerry on the road does not, of itself, represent a calamity.

But to lose by 18 points?

To concede 4-25, a tally more appropriate to a cricket scoreboard, never mind a hurling match, is downright alarming.

Some context? Well, their opening round victory over Mayo, by nine points, reinforces the notion of Cork being football's equivalent of the Galway hurling enigma. More worryingly, they followed up with a ten-point defeat in Donegal ... so they have now lost two on the bounce by a cumulative 28 points.

All of which makes a trip to Dublin either the ultimate nightmare scenario or an ideal backlash opportunity.

Trying to second-guess which version plays out tonight is not entirely straight-forward, because we know there is a well of latent talent in the Cork dressing-room ... but their most recent record against Dublin in Croker (that aforementioned league semi-final and final) scarcely inspires confidence.

Enough of Cork's travails. Whither the Dubs?

On face value, the season couldn't have started much better for the All-Ireland champions. Three league matches, each very different from the next, have resulted in three wins. Already, it's almost impossible to conceive a scenario where they aren't preparing for another Division One semi-final next month.

Dublin's early-season performances in 2016 have eclipsed their 2015 form graph in the same period. They haven't lost a league or championship match since faltering in Kerry, just over a year ago. Win tonight and they'll have negotiated an entire 12-month period with a 100pc league record, embracing nine consecutive victories.

Ring-rust

Other positives? Paul Flynn is back - and while there's plenty of ring-rust to eradicate, the four-time All Star did win a penalty and kick a fine point against Monaghan. Bernard Brogan is also back - and duly reminded us what that means to Dublin by coming off the bench to kick a sumptuous winner last Saturday.

Soon enough too, Michael Darragh Macauley and (doubtless) a few of his Ballyboden club-mates will also be back in the inter-county mix.

What's not to smile about?

Time for a few cautionary words ...

(A) Dublin may have won a thriller last weekend but, even in defeat, Monaghan asked more than enough awkward questions to stifle premature talk of Sky Blue coronations.

(B) Whatever about retaining the league, an art form recently perfected by first Cork and then Dublin, going back-to-back in summer is never quite so straightforward.

(C) To that end, it may well be August before we can fully quantify the extent of the loss that is Rory O'Carroll.

Gavin has plentiful options to play across his full-back line, but our suspicion is that he has no one who can quite play the specialist No 3 role that O'Carroll has managed with such understated aplomb over the last half-decade.

Certain marquee forwards - those who are big and strong enough to win their own ball, but who are also possessed of sharp, intelligent movement and excellent execution skills - can do untold damage if given any latitude.

Preadator

David Byrne is just starting out on his senior career, and the good news for the St Olaf's man is he won't run into Conor McManus every day. Nor, for that matter, does every All-Ireland contender possess an inside predator operating at this rarefied level.

That said, Byrne has suffered two chastening days in the slipstream of Monaghan's slippery No 15 - last year's league semi-final and last Saturday's Croker clash. And any time such an event happens, people will ask is this a sign of things to come in a Sky Blue world minus Rory?

Then, of course, there is the small matter of Jack McCaffrey's summer availability. Mounting speculation that the 2015 Footballer of the Year could be working overseas come the start of championship - first revealed by The Herald on Thursday and subsequently picked up by other media outlets - has not yet elicited a reaction from Dublin's management team. It will be intriguing to hear what Gavin has to say tonight.

Still, if the form book means anything, he should be speaking from a winning platform.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 2/9, Draw 12/1, Cork 4/1
VERDICT: Dublin
Allianz FL Div 1: Dublin v Cork, Croke Park ,Tonight (7.0, live Setanta Ireland)

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