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Sunday 17 December 2017

Farney dreams to face Dublin reality

Too many questions about Monaghan's erratic form... while Gavin's holders are now starting to motor

Brian Fenton of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Brian Fenton of Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

The Herald hopped a ball with Jim Gavin on Thursday morning. We asked the Dublin manager if he ever gets nervous at this watershed quarter-final juncture, knowing that one false step could see it all go up in smoke?

Jim, nervous? Or even admit to feeling fretful? Unlikely.

"The way I approach every game is the exact same," he replied. "The rhythm we have approaching the game is the same for National Football League; it was the same for O'Byrne Cup when I was involved with it last year; and it's the same for championship.

"Our methodology and the processes are the exact same. Each day we just take to the field and try to do our best for Dublin football. If you come up against a team that's better than us on the day, that's disappointing but that's just life."

In a strictly sporting context, this evening's Croke Park affair qualifies as life-or-death. It's certainly not the O'Byrne Cup. And the presumption of most is that Monaghan will be the ones to fall on their sword. How can anyone construct an alternative argument?

Monaghan midfielder Kieran Hughes. Photo: Sportsfile
Monaghan midfielder Kieran Hughes. Photo: Sportsfile

Possibility

Still, let's at least mull over that possibility for a while.

Monaghan can cite a handful of positives. They've won two Ulster titles in the last five seasons; they're hugely experienced and battle-hardened.

They are also a firmly established Division 1 team - unlike anyone the Dubs have faced in Leinster - and not averse to ruffling heavyweight feathers. Remember how they ambushed both Mayo and Kerry on enemy soil last February, and came tantalising close to inflicting something similar on Dublin in April.

So far, so positive. Here's another consideration: Dublin's most recent escape-to-victory in Clones echoed the recent league trend for knife-edge contests between the duo, with Dublin edging their 2015 semi-final and last year's encounter by a point each time.

Those last two games were played in Croker: evidence that Monaghan are capable of at least curbing Dublin's deadly attacking intent. They also showcased the destructive brilliance of Conor McManus: even in 2015 defeat he was Man of the Match, kicking 0-8 (five from play), and this was followed by a towering 0-12 (three from play) in 2016.

Yet you can't ignore the steep reality of Monaghan's challenge. Dublin are nearly unbackable favourites for a reason. Make that several.

First up, they no longer do quarter-final meltdowns. Secondly, any morsels of doubt about their forward fluency (post-Carlow and minus Diarmuid Connolly) have been dispelled by their prolific dispatch of Westmeath and Kildare, when they totalled a scarcely believable 6-52.

The identity of the chief assassin may have varied - Paul Mannion's 0-8 from play against Westmeath; Con O'Callaghan deadly dozen against Kildare. Likewise with the chief support cast, be it Ciarán Kilkenny's 1-3 in the semi or Bernard Brogan's 0-5 off the bench in the final.

But the overall effect was the same: Dublin's forward movement, support play and execution ratio (just six wides in each game) point to a team hitting form at the right time.

Any caveats? A few. The defensive looseness against Kildare will have offered hope to some of Dublin's chief rivals. In mitigation, the injured Jonny Cooper was a big miss while Philly McMahon betrayed signs of rustiness.

Gavin was talking up the fitness of his squad this week (with Cormac Costello the only official casualty) and the presumption is that their defence will be more resolute today.

They'll need to be, if only because McManus showed signs of edging back to his stellar best against Down after a frustrating few weeks. His free-taking, even from the 'wrong' wing, was majestic.

His team's overall second half performance was also more like the confident, cohesive version of Monaghan at their best. They outscored Down 0-15 to 0-7 after half-time. Key to this was the introduction of Conor McCarthy (0-4) and Jack McCarron (0-2), all of which leaves Malachy O'Rourke with a dilemma (and don't take their omission from the official '15' as gospel).

The worry for Monaghan, though, is that their form has been erratic since their concluding league tie against the Dubs, when an unstoppable McCarron amassed 1-9 (4f).

McCarron's own spring promise had dulled while, just as ominously, that erstwhile immovable object called Drew Wylie has suffered two chastening days in the slipstream of Down's Connaire Harrison.

If Monaghan can tighten up at the back, and more especially if the Hughes brothers - Kieran and Darren - can at least security parity at midfield, they should make it a lot tighter than the 17-point mauling endured at this same quarter-final stage in 2014.

But getting closer, we suspect, is as good as it will get.

Odds: Dublin 1/12 Draw 16/1 Monaghan 15/2

Verdict: Dublin

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