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Monday 11 December 2017

Dublin to find way to victory

Holders haven't lost their hunger but Harte's system can push them all the way

Dublin’s John Small puts Tyrone’s Peter Harte under pressure during their Allianz FL Division 1 clash at Croke Park last February. Pics: Sportsfile
Dublin’s John Small puts Tyrone’s Peter Harte under pressure during their Allianz FL Division 1 clash at Croke Park last February. Pics: Sportsfile
Dublin’s Dean Rock is held up by Tyrone’s Cathal McCarron and Aidan McCory during last February’s NFL Division 1 encounter

It might strike you as a strange place to start a preview of tomorrow's epic chess game in the making, given that it didn't even result in a Dublin score but rather a slashed Paul Mannion wide.

How and ever: one particular cameo jumped out at us while rewatching the Dublin/Monaghan quarter-final.

Only shortly beforehand, Dean Rock had deftly palmed the only goal. A game already beyond Monaghan's reach was now, at 11 points, out of sight.

And then Shane Carey gathered possession along the Cusack touchline. At a time when Dublin could be excused for easing off the gas, the Monaghan forward was literally hounded by a double-whammy of defenders, Cian O'Sullivan and Jack McCaffrey taking it in turns to suffocate space, get the hand in, try and force a turnover.

Carey did well to eventually offload to Jack McCarron and Monaghan recycled infield. But when the ball came back to McCarron, Brian Fenton dived at his feet and deflected it towards Mick Fitzsimons, who was duly fouled.

Hungry as hell

What did this unremarkable (on the surface) sequence tell us? That Dublin have not grown remotely sated or complacent in their quest for three-in-a-row history. They are still hungry as hell. Even when a match is over, they remain driven in pursuit of their own high standards.

Maybe that's no surprise when you've got Bernard Brogan, Paul Flynn, Michael Darragh Macauley, Eoghan O'Gara and Kevin McManamon (who wasn't even required the last day) primed on the bench ... and when you've got Diarmuid Connolly suddenly released from his 12 weeks in purgatory.

All of which brings us to tomorrow's semi-final, a collision that most of us have been eagerly awaiting for months.

For Mickey Harte, it may well be a case of six years in the waiting, ever since the last flickering flame of his trailblazing noughties team was doused by the Dubs in 2011.

The dogged application and appetite for hard work shown by O'Sullivan, McCaffrey and Fenton will be required in spades tomorrow.

Why? Because Tyrone will bring the exact same fervour to the fold.

Their finely honed defensive system is predicated on lots of things - endless hours on the training ground, a deep understanding of each player's role in the collective, a sometimes overlooked discipline in the tackle - but it would all break down if the players lacked either the stamina or the voracious work ethic to bring it to fruition.

The difference in Tyrone this year can be seen in the greater fluidity and confidence of their counter-attacking game. And on the scoreboard.

Harte's strategy is clear: to lure the opposition into his defensive web, where Tyrone's ability to isolate and destroy, via swarm-tackling turnovers, is usually followed by a wave of white jerseys morphing from defenders into attackers.

Total football

It's a form of Total Football, albeit one that most traditionalists frown on, longing as they do for some good old-fashioned man-on-man jousting, like Mayo/Kerry last Sunday.

Those same traditionalists may be covering their eyes tomorrow, because the suspicion here is that Dublin will do everything in their power to avoid being sucked up the field (as they were by that Donegal trap in 2014) and exposed to the devastating counter.

That remains Jim Gavin's only SFC defeat. You get the sense that everything about Dublin since then - their defensive shape; the aforementioned work ethic; their more patient, probing game-plan - has been in direct response.

This second incarnation under Gavin lacks some of the flamboyancy of the first, but they have become brilliantly adept at getting the job done.

Check out how their flank men frequently hog the touchline, stretching the play with the ultimate aim of creating gaps through the middle.

If opponents give them the space or invite them into a shootout, Dublin will still gladly oblige: just check out the 4-29 posted against Westmeath or 2-23 against Kildare.

But Gavin knows that, at the business end, more especially against Tyrone, that won't happen. Three weeks ago, they faced a pallid version of what to expect tomorrow: as always, Monaghan packed the defence but their relative passivity was most un-Farney-like.

Dublin's response was instructive: Jonny Cooper was left free to sweep in front of his two fellow full-back markers (before Conor McCarthy came on to make his life far more uncomfortable) while O'Sullivan reprised his usual sweeper role slightly further upfield.

It carried all the hallmarks of a team fine-tuning for what comes next against Tyrone.

This time, in all likelihood, they will face just one full-time attacker - Mark Bradley - for much of the game. Tyrone's pocket rocket predator excelled early on during the Armagh cakewalk but he may be asked to plough a lonelier furrow tomorrow.

That said, what makes his team so potentially dangerous to Dublin is their counter-attacking modus operandi (led by that masterful duo, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly) and their capacity to generate scores from multiple sources.

For all that, we're trusting Dublin's forwards to find a way. Dean Rock's free-taking is beyond metronomic but, even if Tyrone's discipline holds and he's given less opportunity to punish, the champions have so many potential match-winners that one of them, quite possibly off the bench, will squeeze them through their first real, white-knuckle test of 2017.

Odds: Dublin 1/2 Draw 15/2 Tyrone 5/2

Verdict: Dublin

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