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Friday 15 December 2017

Dubs to restart with a Croker flourish

Sorting out kickout woes can go long way to cracking Tyrone's defensive template

ALLIANZ FL DIVISION ONE

DUBLIN v TYRONE

(Croke Park, Tonight 7.0,

live Setanta Ireland)

WOULD it be of year-altering significance were Dublin footballers to complete an Allianz League hat-trick this spring? No. Is it important that they make a winning statement in front of their own tonight? Well actually, come to think of it, yes!

The notion of a Dublin team under extra pressure in the wake of their loss in Killarney last weekend is stretching things slightly - if for no other reason than Dublin are always under pressure to perform.

RISING

Moreover, the bar of expectation has kept on rising over the last few seasons of senior, U21 and minor plenty. Nowadays, the critics and public - not just their own demanding supporters - expect the Sky Blue machine to keep grinding out the silverware.

But there are no guarantees in sport, and this was obvious even before Donegal did the allegedly unthinkable last August.

Last Sunday reaffirmed another home truth: Jim Gavin may be blessed with abundant resources but they aren't limitless. Certain players are pivotal to the cause and, when their absence reaches a critical mass, Dublin can look extremely vulnerable against heavyweight opposition.

And they don't come more heavyweight than Kerry.

Last Sunday, indeed for all of this league campaign to date, the Dubs have been minus Stephen Cluxton, James McCarthy, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly.

McCarthy, Flynn and Connolly are their three current All Stars, with Flynn belonging to that exclusive four-in-a-row club. Cluxton is their skipper, their point-scoring shot-stopper and their playmaking kickout king, rolled into one. Macauley is a former Footballer of the Year; the team's rampaging midfield talisman. Connolly provides the X-factor genius.

Try winning every week without them.

PINGING

Yet it's more than that. Cluxton's rare gift for spotting free runners at the restart and pinging the ball into their chest, without breaking stride, has certainly not been underestimated but it has never been more obvious than in his absence.

Seán Currie endured a horror day at the kickout office last Sunday, but then comparisons to the Prince of Parnell's will always be unforgiving. Nor can you overlook that Macauley, Flynn and Connolly - the three premier fonts of primary possession whenever Cluxton goes long - were not on the pitch.

Throw in Denis Bastick's exit to a 14th minute black card, and Dublin were even more exposed to the aerial prowess of David Moran and Anthony Maher, arguably the strongest ball-winning duo in the country.

Several of Dublin's chief kickout targets may remain absent tonight, but once Cluxton returns there should be a greater level of stability - and they should also carry a greater potency now that Bernard Brogan has eased himself back into the fray without too many signs of ring-rust.

Brogan had a brief cameo in the Donegal slugfest and then 35 minutes against Kerry. The fact that he scored 1-2 (1-1 from play) during a half largely dominated by Kerry tells you something we already knew: he remains, by some distance, Dublin's most important inside marksman.

Presuming he features, Brogan can expect some claustrophobic company given the ultra-defensive template adopted by Mickey Harte in response to Tyrone's abject fadeout against Monaghan on day-one of the league.

BLANKET

This reversion to old habits (albeit more a blanket than a swarm) has yielded Tyrone three points. But while the victory over a scattergun Mayo was fully deserved, they were somewhat blessed to force a late draw at home to Derry.

That was a dour affair played in horrendous weather conditions. Croker, by comparison, will be like a green baize. Dublin will be happier back on familiar turf, but they also have a point to prove ... and two points to earn.

BOYLESPORTS: Dublin 2/7, Draw 10/1, Tyrone 7/2

VERDICT: Dublin

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