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Saturday 16 December 2017

Mayo must prove title credentials

Last year’s defeat to Galway will be weighing on Rochford’s players who cannot afford another flat team effort

Seamus O’Shea of Mayo in action against Galway’s Johnny Heaney during the Connacht SFC semi-final at Elverys MacHale Park last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Seamus O’Shea of Mayo in action against Galway’s Johnny Heaney during the Connacht SFC semi-final at Elverys MacHale Park last year. Photo: Sportsfile

Hopefully there is a chance that a bit of football will break out this weekend in the football championship. The meeting of Mayo and Galway in Pearse Stadium in the Connacht SFC semi-final is a game that should whet the appetite for anyone who wants a break from the recent controversies that have hung over the game.

Galway come into the match with the momentum of a successful league campaign on the back of last year's provincial title. A team moving in the right direction, you would think. This game is not in Croke Park so that should also stand in their favour.

In contrast, Mayo have a cloud of doubt hanging over their current form and in lots of ways it is a bigger game for them to lay down a marker.

When the teams met last year in Castlebar, Galway were by far the hungrier team and were more intense in the tackle right throughout the field.

They simply wanted it more. Paul Conroy and Thomas Flynn dominated the middle third and Flynn's goal in the last quarter gave them the momentum at a crucial stage to get over the line.

Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea of Mayo reacts after a missed chance during last year’s Connacht SFC semi-final against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aidan O’Shea of Mayo reacts after a missed chance during last year’s Connacht SFC semi-final against Galway. Photo: Sportsfile

The Mayo performance was flat that day. No drive, no energy, bad shot options, plenty of wides and a general sense of complacency was evident.

Despite all that, Mayo still led by three points with 15 minutes to go, largely because Cillian O'Connor's free-taking kept them in the game.

Mayo could have won the game playing poorly but instead they got a wake-up call. It kicked started their season and they went all the way to the All Ireland final.

This Sunday is different though, and Mayo simply cannot afford the luxury of a flat performance. It will give us a strong indication as to whether this Mayo management team are really up to the task tactically. They should know by now what to expect from Galway.

Galway have a system of defensive play that they are committed to.

They were criticised after the Division Two League final for playing with a conservative mind set when many felt they have the pace in their forward line to play with more attacking flare.

It is probably fair to say Galway approached that league final with one eye on Mayo.

If Galway were to play high press attacking strategy committing bodies forward it will only play into Mayo's hands.

Play an open game against Mayo and they will lap it up, with strong runners allowing their inside forwards to create plenty of scoring chances. Galway would lose the game. This is where managers earn their crust, knowing what system is suitable on any given day.

Secondly, the top teams must be able to adapt and have a Plan B, depending on how the opposition might play.

Kevin Walsh will set his team up to defend their 50-yard line with numbers, tracking the key Mayo runners.

And when they have the Mayo attack slowed down, they will ensure they have extra protection in the form of sweeper in their full-back line.

It is a model that Mayo struggled with last year and too many times they coughed up possession in the tackle, allowing Galway to counter-attack.

The downside for Galway is that their system will negate the potential of their forward line and their weakness is that they are not the most fluent counter-attacking team in the game by a long shot.

When Mayo are not tuned in mentally, their option-taking at times can be poor. They showed at stages during the league, particularly against Cavan, that they can struggle against a structured defensive system.

Struggle

Granted, most teams will struggle against a mass defence but if Mayo are to be All-Ireland contenders, they need to be smarter in possession and take better options.

Galway will also favour a long kick-out strategy and this is where Mayo must bring a level of intensity which we know they are capable of to put pressure on the Galway system of play. For me, they need to commit bodies to the midfield area and dominate the aerial exchanges, together with the breaking ball.

If they give this Galway team space in the middle third, they do have forwards like Shane Walsh, Danny Cummins and Damien Comer who will do damage. Going forward, patience must be a virtue when breaking down the Galway defence and they must bring more width to their attack.

I have said before that this Mayo team are carrying a huge amount of baggage following the last few years on and off the pitch. That brings pressure.

Sunday will tell us a lot about their title credentials this year. A Galway victory cannot be ruled out but Mayo have learnt lessons from last year and if they bring the required intensity, they should have too much.

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