Dubs to win and down the war donegal
Blues self-belief can see off McGuinness's men and put ghost of Páirc Esler to bed
DON'T mention the war. It's kind of impossible though, isn't it?
Any mention of Donegal this year immediately conjures up memories of last August and that day in Croke Park when the football world stood open-mouthed in shock.
Maybe Jim McGuinness was right after all, though. Amid the loud shrieks and outraged wailing over his aesthetically redundant tactics, one fact cannot be denied: Donegal were effective and consistent throughout 2011.
They won Division 2 of the league and the Ulster championship, defying modern convention by negotiating their way to the Anglo Celt Cup from the dreaded preliminary round.
And in their six championship matches all year, they conceded just a solitary goal to Cavan.
It's also worth recalling one last time that in the great pantheon of might-have-beens, it's entirely plausible that had Colm McFadden taken his goal opportunity early in the second half of their All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin, rather than firing over Stephen Cluxton's Canal End crossbar, Donegal rather than Pat Gilroy's eventual champions would have been contesting the final.
Even with that let-off, the Dubs still needed a couple of strokes of Bernard Brogan's genius and a swashbuckling cameo from Kevin McManamon to finish off the most utterly gruelling of jobs. This year, resplendent with promises from McGuinness to expand on last year's gameplan, the men from the northwest haven't had anything like the same level of consistency or defensive security.
In fact, they've conceded more than they've scored in their two wins and three defeats to date, and that constitutes something of a surprise, even if the raised standards of Division 1 can be held partly culpable.
Encouragingly though, there have been signs of a more dynamic attacking functionality and there is no denying McGuinness possesses the players to do so.
If your attack can namecheck the talents of McFadden, Michael Murphy and increasingly, Dublin-born Paddy McBrearty, it should be easy to build a forward line as comfortable on the back foot as they are at setting their sights on the posts.
McGuinness already possesses half-backs who are comfortable on the ball and can time their forward forays, so the raw materials seem to be in place, even if early-season consistency has eluded Donegal.
Of more relevance, however, is the fact that they produced their best performance of the year so far in a seven-point win over rapidly sinking Mayo, and even more impressive was the fact that they came back from a 1-5 to 0-6 half-time deficit and the loss of Rory Kavanagh to a straight red card before the break to outscore their visitors by 0-11 to 0-2 in the second 35 minutes.
The Dubs, on the other hand, couldn't handle Down's intensity last week in Newry's Páirc Esler, particularly the ferociousness with which they defended and the ball-winning propensity of their bulky midfielders and their dominance of the breaking ball, meaning the blue-clad inside forwards never got the chance to really express themselves.
Pat Gilroy was, however, genuinely pleased with how his side responded after the break, and the fact remained that while Down were undoubtedly the better team, they never really threatened a goal whereas Dublin had four or five fair-to-good opportunities.
McManamon was generally the instigator and in Croke Park, his power, pace and directness are always amplified.
Encouragingly from a long-term Dublin viewpoint, both Cian O'Sullivan and Kevin Nolan are back in harness in defence, and the likelihood is that Donegal will keep the Dublin full-backs much more honest than they did in Croke Park six months ago.
It will be interesting, though, to note tonight whether Donegal's attacking renaissance has come at the expense of their 2011 bus-parking, or whether they plan to turn it on and off as the challenge dictates or, indeed, if there are varying degrees of defensiveness into which they can morph.
If so, one would imagine Dublin in Croke Park is exactly the sort of challenge which would require the extreme version of the system, as seen in last August's All-Ireland semi-final which, for an as yet inconsistent Dublin and an impatient crowd alike, could prove an awkward and frustrating evening.
Like we said, don't mention the war.
ODDS: Dublin 1/3, Draw 9/1, Donegal 3/1