Blues to gun down Rebels
THE closer it gets to throw-in, the more jittery Dublin fans of a nervous disposition will become.
That's what happens when you're about to face a rival who has beaten you on previous big occasions in Croke Park, who have gone the All-Ireland distance ... and who currently appear light years away from that 2010 Sam Maguire standard.
So why fear Cork? Because our incorrigible Rebels remain a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. Their recent tactics have been questionable, their selection policy seemingly all over the shop – but they retain a hardcore of powerful athletes and serious footballers.
If they suddenly click, will Dublin be ready and able to withstand them?
Given the ultra-meticulous manager that is Jim Gavin, you must assume his charges are prepared for whatever curve ball this fixture throws at them, be it the near-obligatory 11th-hour changes in personnel or some possible tactical shift.
But our jittery Dubs will still be queasy on the road to Croker, partly because it's Cork and also because, well, now it's knockout. One flat performance and the bubble is burst for another year.
We'll try to soothe your nerves with some logical argument as to why Dublin should come through this challenge and advance to the semi-finals.
First up, Dublin. In an age of blanket defence and outright attrition, Gavin has gone against the zeitgeist with his devotion to The Beautiful Game ... but Dublin have been far more than merely pretty on the eye; they've been pretty effective too.
Cue a first National League in 20 years, then another Leinster title following victory in three matches by a combined winning margin of 39 points. They weren't playing Division Four cannon fodder either: Westmeath had qualified for Division One, Kildare had reached the league semi-finals, a visibly improving Meath had been promoted to Division Two.
During the same period, the erstwhile spring kingpins from Cork failed to reach the league semi-finals and then, after routinely overwhelming Limerick and Clare (both from Division Four), they produced long periods of incompetence against both Kerry in the Munster final and Galway last Saturday.
On each occasion they leaked 1-16: how can this same defence hope to cope with the pace and movement of Paul Mannion; the X factor of Bernard Brogan with a point to prove; the rampaging runs of Paul Flynn from deep; the poise and pinpoint distribution of Ciarán Kilkenny?
When you put it like that, surely it's best for all concerned if Cork football's legion of fans stay at home for once?
We jest, of course, in more ways than one. This is a potentially perilous fixture for Dublin, far more than last year's quarter-final against Laois. It's dangerous because if Cork's man mountains can establish a platform around midfield, then Dublin's full-back line, on recent evidence, looks prone to leakage.
You could argue that Meath, in the first half of that Leinster final, showed everyone the template for taking on the Dubs where they are most vulnerable.
Every forward pressed up on Stephen Cluxton's kick-out, forcing the Dublin skipper to go long. Suddenly it was a 50-50 duel for possession – and Meath actually won the first four Sky Blue restarts. Now, Cluxton being Cluxton, found a way to stem the bleeding – usually by locating Flynn's runs to the flank – and by half-time Dublin had won more of their own kick-outs (8-6).
But they were still struggling off Royal restarts while, on too many occasions, Dublin defenders found themselves in one-to-one duels with a Meath forward. By half-time they trailed by two points (0-9 to 1-4), having been carved open for a couple of goal chances too. All this despite a first half masterclass in distribution by a centre-forward – Kilkenny – playing with a calmness beyond his years.
The above synopsis gives you one possible roadmap to Rebel success. Consider if Alan O'Connor, Pearse O'Neill and Aidan Walsh start to dominate the skies – then imagine the type of damage that O'Neill and/or Walsh on a straight-line burst could inflict.
You may even hark back to the first night of the league, in Croke Park on February 2, when Colm O'Neill's slick lay-off to Walsh – accelerating through the middle – led to a Cork goal. They scored two that night, and were denied another brace by Cluxton's reactions.
So then, maybe it's the Sky Blue multitudes who should stay at home tonight? Time for some perspective.
First up, another season-ending cruciate tear has deprived Cork of the aforementioned Colm O'Neill, arguably their most potent attacker. Meanwhile, Paddy Kelly, their most accomplished playmaker, is only on the comeback trail: he made a difference off the bench during their alarmingly late victory charge against Galway, but will he have sufficient match fitness (or game-time) to make an impact?
As for Dublin, we cannot second-guess Gavin's thought processes, but we're sure he's well aware that midfield struggled for long spells until Denis Bastick arrived on 47 minutes to steady the Leinster ship.
Bastick is again named on the bench and it's possible that this wily All-Ireland veteran will be held in reserve once more.
In that scenario, Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O'Sullivan must try and win more primary ball to complement their undoubted dynamism around the pitch. But it also behoves the Dublin half-backs and half-forwards – not just Flynn – to offer more sustained support.
And if Dublin win enough ball, logic points one way. Three years ago – when their back-door odyssey ended in semi-final defeat with a late Cork surge – they were utterly reliant on Bernard Brogan for scores. But while Brogan is still around (hoping to rediscover his early-season mojo) they have become a far more rounded attacking unit.
The scores can come from literally anywhere (all the way back to Cluxton!) and their ability to break at lightning pace from deep, often via Jack McCaffrey or James McCarthy, has consistently carved open defences.
And Cork's defence, thus far, has been anything but solid. In the Munster final they trailed by nine points after 50 minutes and it could have been far worse – their rousing riposte in the home straight was a reminder of Cork's potential, but even that couldn't mask their earlier defensive disarray.
On to Galway last weekend. On The Sunday Game highlights show, Ciarán Whelan of this parish highlighted Cork's new propensity to funnel loads of men back inside their '45' – without putting any heat on the man in possession. Galway duly kicked points at their leisure.
Give Dublin the same latitude and Cork will be fatally punished.
BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 2/5, Draw 9/1, Cork 12/5