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Dublin drive for five set for lap of victory

All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin v Kerry (Croke Pk, Tom 3.30 RTÉ2/Sky)

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Kerry’s David Moran and Dublin’s Brian Fenton are among the best midfielders of their generation Inset right: Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Sportsfile

Kerry’s David Moran and Dublin’s Brian Fenton are among the best midfielders of their generation Inset right: Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Kerry’s David Moran and Dublin’s Brian Fenton are among the best midfielders of their generation Inset right: Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton. Photo: Sportsfile

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this, the ultimate Decade of the Dubs, is the fact that very few people saw it coming.

Certainly not back on that August Bank Holiday Monday, 2009, when Kerry toyed with and tormented Dublin to win by 17 points.

Stephen Cluxton was already a seasoned campaigner by then. Paddy Andrews started - at corner-back. Cian O'Sullivan came off the bench to join an already sunken ship.

Did any of that now-decorated trio foresee what was about to unfold?

Ever since that ambush of the earwigs, Kerry have paid traumatised witness to each stage of this Dublin evolution. They were there in 2011 when Pat Gilroy's team defied the doubters and their own history of self-doubt to end the 16-year famine in a grandstand finish.

They were there in 2013 when Dublin survived the first acid test of the Jim Gavin era. They were there in 2015, strangely overcome by inhibition as the 'post-Donegal' Dubs revelled in the rain.

Capitalise

Back then, of course, no one was talking about a Drive for Five. Two-in-a-row was viewed as one of those theoretical titles that eluded all bar the very best ... but then even Kerry couldn't capitalise on a five-point cushion in the semi-final of 2016.

It's the last time these counties have met in summer and, three years on, it's a very different landscape.

Now, not alone are Dublin within touching distance of five-in-a-row, they are scorching hot favourites. Who could imagine they'd be a prohibitive 1/4 to beat Kerry in a 70-minute duel? This is a measure of how far Dublin have travelled this decade.

To cite the above odds as an indication of green-and-gold regression would be grossly unfair on this current group. With a few notable stalwart exceptions, this is a new Kerry. Backed by five minor All-Irelands from 2014 to '18, there is ample evidence to suggest that they are the coming team.

Trouble is, for the Kingdom, this final has surely come a year too soon.

Coming off a lacklustre league, Dublin look to have timed their run into the history books quite brilliantly. They are hitting 2-21 per game - almost identical to last year's prolific benchmark, and eclipsing their averages in '15, '16 or '17.

Meanwhile, the backs have leaked just over 12 points per game - their most frugal average in this five-year odyssey. They have coughed up just two goals; Lee Keegan's deft semi-final finish was their first concession from open play.

So the stats suggest Dublin have become stronger. Amber light warnings of vulnerability, such as that first half against Mayo, have been rare in the extreme.

What followed - those 12 minutes of destruction after half-time - reinforced the impression that there is no better team at mid-game problem-solving. And none better at raising the intensity bar to unbearable levels.

For all that, could they falter in the home straight?

It's not entirely implausible, for a few reasons. Maybe the pressure of five-in-a-row will suddenly manifest itself now - it was never going to be a factor as they cruised through Leinster and the Super 8s, but Kerry in a final?

Specifically, a forward line that includes David Clifford, a suspension-reprieved Stephen O'Brien, Seán O'Shea and a revitalised Paul Geaney represents Dublin's biggest test yet.

They haven't faced such a multi-faceted threat all year, before you even consider the X-factor of Tommy Walsh. But, thus far, this defence has made light of every challenger; has refuted the notion of a so-called Achilles heel under aerial onslaught.

The further up the field you go, the more it looks like this final is Dublin's to lose. Even if he's not in direct combat with Brian Fenton, David Moran must produce the midfield game of his life. Fenton's form graph has risen incrementally all summer, back to the stellar level of last year.

If he provides the platform, and he seldom doesn't, it's hard to see how the combined power and wit of this Dublin attack, their selfless team work and metronomic shooting, won't eventually force that still-unproven Kerry defence to crack.

Likewise, the pivotal case of two 'keepers: where you can trust Cluxton to set the possession agenda (because he invariably does on All-Ireland day) this is a new stage for Shane Ryan about to experience the ultimate challenge that is the Dublin press.

One final thought. The three current favourites for Footballer of the Year are Con O'Callaghan (15/8), Fenton (7/2) and Paul Mannion (5/1). One midfield colossus sandwiched by two inside assassins. All Dubs at the very peak of their powers, ready to seal their place in history.

ODDS: Dublin 1/4 Draw 12/1 Kerry 4/1

VERDICT: Dublin by 5