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Tuesday 12 December 2017

'Alternative' Leinster final on knife edge

Leinster SFC semi-final: Meath v Kildare (Tullamore, Tonight 7.0, Live Sky Sports 5)

Kildare are operating at a higher level in manager Cian O’Neill’s (centre) second season in charge. Photo: Sportsfile
Kildare are operating at a higher level in manager Cian O’Neill’s (centre) second season in charge. Photo: Sportsfile

To describe tonight's prime-time TV event as the alternative Leinster final may sound cruel, so apologies at the outset.

Yet that statement is merely a reflection of what Leinster football has become in this era of unbroken Sky Blue rule.

Dublin are barometer and elusive holy grail rolled into one. The only way to stop them is to take a quantum leap yourself, instead of waiting for the Dubs to come back to your level.

The good news is that Kildare and Meath (a) realise this to be so and (b) are taking proactive steps to close the gap.

Next month may well constitute a jump too high, too quickly, for either ... but at least we'll know a lot more by Sunday evening, July 16. On the presumption, of course, that Jim Gavin's All-Ireland hat-trick chasers don't succumb to the unthinkable tomorrow week.

Captain Graham Reilly is a vital part of the Meath attack. Photo: Sportsfile
Captain Graham Reilly is a vital part of the Meath attack. Photo: Sportsfile

In the meantime, there's a semi-final to be won in Bord na Móna O'Connor Park tonight. And a tasty one at that, too.

We might even be so bold as to suggest that no Leinster SFC fixture has generated so much pre-match anticipation in the last five years.

As it doesn't involve Dublin, the outcome is not preordained. And because it involves two upwardly-mobile rivals with different qualities and yet similarly prolific form, the outcome is even harder to second-guess.

For all the hackneyed nonsense about "50-50, all on the day" championship games, here is one such contest seemingly balanced on a knife edge.

Reasons to favour Kildare? There are several: consistency of selection and game-plan under Cian O'Neill; resultant steadiness of performance; their impressive athleticism and intensity; and the sense that here is a group, many of them Leinster U-21 winners in 2013, who are coming into their physical and footballing prime.

Reasons to back to the Royals? Andy McEntee's Midas touch has rubbed off on the Meath minors (All-Ireland runners-up in 2012) and to a greater extent on Ballyboden St Enda's, the most unlikely of All-Ireland club champions prior to their 2015 Dublin coronation.

Now we are seeing flickers of that improvement in his first year with the Meath seniors. This was evident in their steadily rising form graph as a slow-starting league unfolded, and in how they recovered from a treble-whammy of goals to bury Louth in an avalanche of points, 27 in all, a fortnight ago.

Here's another reason to fancy Meath: they have pace to burn up front and if Kildare are so remiss as to replicate the space left by Louth's man-on-man approach, then Graham Reilly will be first through the gap, followed by Eamon Wallace, Cillian O'Sullivan et al.

But here's the rub: Kildare have moved to a higher level in year two under O'Neill. They mightn't have the same raw pace as Meath up front; but they had 13 different scorers in their 14-point cruise past Laois.

Injury-enforced

All this in the injury-enforced absence of two otherwise likely inside starters, Ben McCormack (still out) and Neil Flynn (a possible bench option).

Truth is, with Daniel Flynn leading the onslaught, they buried Laois even more emphatically than Meath, for all their points, blitzed Louth.

That was largely because of Louth's three goals; but they threatened several more, which must rank as McEntee's biggest concern. Another? The possibility of losing midfield to Kevin Feely, so influential against Laois, and Tommy Moolick.

For all that, no one expects a repeat of last February when Kildare mauled their Páirc Tailteann hosts, 3-17 to 0-16. Meath are a different beast today.

Still, that set the 2017 performance bar for the Lilies. There have been a few dips along the way since then - one-point defeats in Derry and Pearse Stadium (the latter with an experimental line-up, top-flight promotion achieved) followed by a two-point loss, again to Galway, in the Division 2 final.

The manner in which they ceded fourth-quarter control that day raised some old doubts about Kildare ... but their trajectory remains upward and our hunch says it will continue here.

ODDS: Kildare 4/5 Draw 15/2 Meath 11/8

VERDICT: Kildare

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