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Monday 11 December 2017

For once, forget the rule of replays - the momentum is with Mayo

All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay KERRY v MAYO (Croke Park, Today 3.0, Live RTÉ 1/Sky Sports Arena)

Mayo's Lee Keegan
Mayo's Lee Keegan

When trying to make sense of a sequel, the best place to start is usually that dog-eared tome, Writing Replay Previews For Beginners.

There are certain rules that simply must be obeyed ...

1: Cite case history to show that underdogs rarely get a second chance.

2: Repeat the old adage that whoever learns most from the drawn game wins the replay.

3: After all your caveats are exhausted, tip the out-of-sorts favourite to get the job done.

So there you have it ... verdict Kerry!

Forgive us our hesitation but today's Croker rematch requires a whole lot more consideration than that.

After last Sunday's spellbinding drama and heroics - from both sides, but especially Mayo - this replay can't come quickly enough, not just for the partisan camps but for a neutral public that has been drip-fed its footballing entertainment all summer.

But anyone who claims prior knowledge of what comes next is talking hogwash.

Over two oscillating semi-finals in 2014 and a third last weekend, all we know for sure is that (a) there is virtually nothing to separate Kerry and Mayo and (b) you should expect the unexpected. We also know this: virtually every Mayo game is a roller-coaster but, despite their propensity for mid-game lulls or even nosedives, they never raise the white flag.

So don't be surprised if, after 70 ebb-and-flow minutes, another 20 is required. Just like three years ago.

But, when it eventually ends, who is it to be?

The case for Kerry can be distilled as follows:

  • Only a handful of players came close to their A-game six days ago. Ergo, they have more scope for improvement.
  • Surely éamonn Fitzmaurice will act to tackle Kerry's most glaring weakness - a porous full-back line afforded minimal protection because of a risky strategy to press high and flood the middle-third. Whatever about shaking up the personnel (his options are thin enough), Fitzmaurice cannot expect to leave the same open prairies in front of Andy Moran, Cillian O'Connor and Jason Doherty - and get away with it.
  • After Sunday's first half (when they won seven of Mayo's 13 restarts) Kerry appreciate the rewards to be gained from a full-court press on David Clarke's kickout.
  • There is a lot more in James O'Donoghue. And more in Paul Geaney too, notwithstanding his big second half.
  • The Kieran Donaghy X-factor still hovers large over this replay. Not only does 'Star' still spook Mayo, Kerry will adapt to the circumstances (ie, the identity of his marker) in the knowledge that Donaghy can inflict profound damage in the skies or on the ground.

The case for Kerry rests. But we're still not convinced.

After all the near-death experiences of July, what cannot be denied is that Mayo have caught fire in August. They have produced compelling back-to-back displays. That spells momentum - more than Kerry possess right now.

Achilles

Delve deeper and you'll find that Mayo's historic Achilles heel - a forward line that fails to fully function - has only reared its head once in their last four outings. Against Cork, their shot conversion rate in normal time reached a staggering 81pc (21 out of 26). In the Roscommon replay, while running up 4-19, they had 13 different scorers from open play. Last Sunday, their inside trio turned the screw and accumulated 1-10, all bar one point from play.

As their initially stuttering, increasingly epic campaign has evolved, we have seen emerge a Mayo that can switch between its old, rampaging, running self and a kicking game that cut Kerry open in the first half.

But have they lost their best chance? Possibly. But they have scope for improvement too. Lee Keegan needs to take ownership of his likely battle with Paul Murphy.

They need more from big Aidan too ... even if (as local speculation suggests) O'Shea stays on Donaghy watch. Getting tighter in the trenches is a must; in that scenario, if he can again limit Donaghy's aerial threat or Kerry's willingness to engage it, that will be half the battle.

Donaghy will always do damage; Mayo, of all counties, know this. But if he can be subdued, even partially, this might just be Mayo's day.

Odds: Kerry 8/13 Draw 15/2 Mayo 2/1

Verdict: Mayo

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