Coman Goggins: Kerry must shore up their defence
AT the end of the national football league you would have got a fairly decent price on Kerry and Donegal contesting Sunday's All-Ireland SFC final.
Kerry finished just above the relegation places and suffered a heavy final round defeat to Cork, while Donegal, who topped Division 2 on scoring difference, lost the divisional decider to Monaghan and appeared devoid of the spark that catapulted them to All-Ireland success two seasons ago.
Fast forward five months to a September showdown and you have two counties who, over the course of the summer have been the most effective at tweaking their game-plans and counter-acting the opposition.
As the bookies favourite Donegal appear to hold the edge and have the more defined and battle-hardened game-plan with the undoubted ace in their pack being their defensive structure that as Dublin and many more discovered to their cost, can suck the life out of the most potent attack.
Their strength lies in the numbers that they commit to restricting teams scoring chances, particularly goals, but within this unit the individuals applying the press are very capable defenders.
The McGee brothers and Paddy McGrath offer the glue in terms of the designated marking roles, although Neil McGee is fond of what is best described as a measured wander into attacking territory, particularly late in the game when the legs outside him are beginning to wane.
It is the attacking half-back legs of Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey that could prove the key to Donegal's ambitions this weekend, where between them they make calculated decisions to run full tilt into the space that they have coaxed teams to concede to them, popping up as the last or second last man in a move that often finishes with a score.
If Donegal's defence is the jewel in their crown, then Kerry's is built on their out and out forward brilliance. The movement and economy of effort of their front six, and more specifically their inside line, has delivered some big scores at key moments this summer, and carries the stand-out forward of the year in James O'Donoghue.
The Killarney Legion man has excelled in the Kingdom's full-forward line, bagging 4-24 in his four championship starts, which interestingly is only two points less than what Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Paddy McBrearty combined have contributed to Donegal's championship tally.
But this impressive personal tally will be tempered by the fact that O'Donoghue's scores have come against counties who don't operate a defensive cordon like the one Donegal operate so effectively.
When you consider the difficulties the likes of Dublin's Bernard Brogan and Monaghan's Conor McManus had in making in roads in attack, you get a sense again that Jim McGuinness' side have the personnel to restrict O'Donghue's influence if Kerry stick to their usual plan of attack.
Not only have they the defensive plan to frustrate the Kerry attack but also because of their experience of playing this formation, McGuinness' attacking outlets are so comfortable at surviving on scraps that rarely do the minor changes he applies around the field impact on their effectiveness.
In fact McFadden's timely return to form in their All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin has breathed new life into an attack that had been overly-reliant on Murphy.
It is ultimately how Kerry deal with the combined threat of a packed defence and swift counter-attacking that will determine what way their day ends on Sunday.
Two years ago when Donegal beat Cork in their All-Ireland semi-final meeting, Conor Counihan played an extra attacker, pushing up on Mark McHugh in the hope of that this would reduce his impact and create a seventh scoring option for the Cork attack. It didn't work and Cork lost the game.
In fact the only teams that have come close to Donegal in either their All-Ireland winning year or this year, have been teams who have mirrored their set-up, like Armagh did in their quarter-final meeting, where they committed bodies to their defence and hit Donegal on the break.
Kerry's defensive structure, which received so much praise in the wake of their 12-point hammering of Cork in the Munster final has appeared more vulnerable as the All-Ireland series has played out, leaking six goals in three games and appearing to have a particular difficulty in dealing with pace when it's aimed straight down their throat.
If Eamonn Fitzmaurice wants to truly rattle McGuinness' cage and provide Kerry with a solid foundation for lifting the Sam Maguire, then I believe he needs to shore up at the back. Additional bodies will solve the problem of a soft centre, but it will also pull more Donegal players into the game as they try to navigate Kerry's massed defence.
If they can implement this game-plan, then the things Kerry do so well, such as their foot-passing and movement in attack may well expose retreating Donegal legs and open up enough space for O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney to exploit.
While it's a big ask, the Munster final did indicate that Kerry have tried this packed defensive structure with Declan O'Sullivan playing a leading role, and I'm sure on the back of the years of heartache Kerry have suffered to the blanket northern defence that it would be sweet success even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.