herald

Tuesday 27 September 2016

No Done deal but Dublin to find a way ...

History has taught holders to be wary ... but they have the firepower and form to prevail

Donegal’s Michael Murphy (left) was tracked by Dublin’s James McCarthy in the league. Photo: Sportsfile
Donegal’s Michael Murphy (left) was tracked by Dublin’s James McCarthy in the league. Photo: Sportsfile

Time to up the ante. Dublin have been in cruise mode thus far in their pursuit of that tantalising prize known as 'back-to-back', but it cannot have escaped their attention all week that they are about to enter a different domain.

That's partly because this is an All-Ireland quarter-final, the safety net removed.

It's even more because, instead of the latest Leinster victim to be served on a plate, they are facing a team that doesn't particularly fear the All-Ireland champions.

There is history between Dublin and Donegal, and many chapters - from the infamy of 2011, to the controversy-spattered 2013 league game in Ballybofey, to the Mother of All Ambushes in 2014.

Even since then, league renewals have tended to be (as a diplomat might say) feisty. They don't like each other - that's what happens when rivals keep meeting, so no surprise there.

Multi-pronged

Perhaps of more relevance to this evening, Donegal have never been one to cower in the face of Dublin at a packed Croker. That's not to say they don't fret about the multi-pronged scoring threat of Messrs Brogan, McManamon, Connolly, Rock et al - the Tír Chonaill tendency to set up even more ultra-defensively against the Dubs than anyone else can be seen as a back-handed compliment.

But Donegal know just how close they came to suffocating Pat Gilroy's team in 2011. They have the belief-bolstering memory of how they destroyed Jim Gavin's Dubs on the counter in 2014.

They know. And Dublin know. And that's why there's a wariness in the capital this week - reflected in the columns of several retired heroes - that isn't reflected in their 1/6 match odds with bookies.

Here's the thing, though: are capital folk wary of Donegal's reputation, or Donegal's recent form?

Our suspicion is that it's largely predicated on the former, on the knowledge of what Karl Lacey, Frank McGlynn and Michael Murphy have produced in the past, rather than on their 2016 form graphs.

It's perhaps no surprise that Donegal's top two performers - by a country mile - against Cork were two of the younger generation, Ryan McHugh and Paddy McBrearty. They and the dashing greenhorn that is Eoin McHugh provided the legs and energy, the wit as well as a welter of points, to see off Cork by three.

But this was only after a most un-Donegal-like first half during which huge canyons sprung up between midfield and the full-back line. Paul Kerrigan, Donncha O'Connor and Cork's army of quasi-defenders capitalised on the space - and Donegal's lack of intensity - to build up a five-point lead at one stage.

But for the metronomic McBrearty, the game could have been dead.

Now, it's possible that their initial lethargy was partly to do with Donegal feeling sorry for themselves post-Tyrone. Perhaps, too, it was a knee-jerk tactical reaction to some of the criticism that flowed from the Ulster final.

By the second half, though, normal service had been restored - and we fully expect Rory Gallagher to set up with a blanket and try and soak up the blue wave today.

One big difference since (and because of) 2014 is that Dublin won't allow their half-backs to get sucked up the field. They're a different, more streetwise, animal now.

Cian O'Sullivan is the game's pre-eminent sweeper. He will seek to guard the space in front of McBrearty.

But what if Donegal push Murphy inside for longer than the recent norm? Even though their midfield looks vulnerable in his absence, it's a gamble worth taking - not alone because Murphy has been less influential than usual out the field, but even more so because Dublin minus Rory O'Carroll could creak under an aerial bombardment.

That vulnerability was seen only sporadically in Leinster, but they haven't faced a heavyweight opponent yet - and that's before we factor in the fitness for battle of James McCarthy, the man detailed to track Murphy in the league.

It's only now that we'll discover if the absence of two (or three) defensive mainstays from 2015 could unhinge Dublin's quest for two-in-a-row.

They have the athleticism, skill set and forward firepower to do it - no question. This evening we'll learn a lot more about their hunger and resilience if/when they are pushed into their discomfort zone.

Still, what is it they say about revenge and cold dishes? The Dubs to atone for 2014.

ODDS: Dublin 1/6, Draw 14/1, Donegal 5/1

VERDICT: Dublin

All-Ireland sfc quarter-final: Dublin v Donegal, Croke Park, Today 6.0 (live sky sports 3)

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