Orchard as Dublin to burn eye semi
With trio of All-Ireland kings shape to pick off inconsistent returning to the fold Sky Blues in prime Armagh and lay a marker for progress
ARMAGH manager Paddy O'Rourke speculated this week what might have happened had Brian Mallon's shot trickled into the net rather than off Philly McMahon's foot back when his team played Dublin in the 2010 championship.
His assertion was that Armagh would definitely have won the game, whatever about going on to challenge for an All-Ireland. What, though, would have become of the Dubs?
There would have been no maiden slaying of the Tyrone dragon and no peering tantalisingly into that year's All-Ireland final before Cork unceremoniously slammed the window shut in the semi.
Would Dublin have garnered enough from 2010 to be able to kick on so spectacularly as they did in 2011? It's a moot point.
The fact is McMahon did make the block. Dublin did win the game and the two team's graphs have chartered utterly different courses over the past 18 months or so -- even if optimism in Armagh is more palpable now than it has been in some while.
Conversely in Dublin at the moment, there is a collective ambivalence to the league -- one which is only afforded to followers of the All-Ireland champions and Kerry, whenever the groups aren't one and the same.
This time last year, the cry from the faithful was that Dublin needed to win the league.
They needed to be consistent all spring and simply had to maintain their level of competitiveness with All-Ireland contenders.
Now, the screeches are less audible and the focus is on how last year's operation will be improved and expanded upon.
Against that backdrop, it's notable that Pat Gilroy fielded just four All-Ireland final starters against Laois last week (that figure rises to seven tomorrow with the additions of Alan Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley and James McCarthy), and still overran Justin McNulty's vastly improving side.
Mostly, Eoghan O'Gara and Diarmuid Connolly did the damage and, in the context of attacking expansion, this is no bad thing. If Bernard Brogan's tour de force of 2010 led to a greater awareness of his abilities last year, what defensive configurations will the greatest minds in football management concoct to deal with him and his brother in 2012?
Connolly -- his Tyrone exhibition besides -- wasn't particularly prolific in last year's championship but has all the style and tricks and nous to be a more regularly heavy scorer while an on-form O'Gara -- if the Laois performance transpires not to be an early-season aberration -- is the sort of unpredictable weapon which explodes defensive systems.
Selector Paddy O'Donoghue's analysis of the performance ("We played well for two patches of 20 minutes ... so we have to get that up to 70 minutes") holds truth but even when Dublin weren't particularly fluid, they still contained their opponents effectively, all the while tagging on scores before O'Gara's blitz eventually destroyed the home resistance.
Early on, the deep-lying Laois runners were finding space in front of the Dublin half-back line, but such is the comfort with which the blue defenders fit into their defensive system, channels of running were duly clogged.
There must, however, be more dynamism from the Dublin midfield who, by virtue of Laois' tendency to drop plenty of men behind the ball -- enjoyed plenty of possession in O'Moore Park but with very little end product.
For their part, Armagh are something of a conundrum at the moment. Widely touted for relegation given the absence of their entire Crossmaglen representation and attacking fulcrum Stevie McDonnell, they went and took three points from two matches against Munster giants, Kerry and Cork. Then they promptly went and lost last weekend at home to Mayo, where a win would have catapulted them to within clutching distance of a league semi-final berth. Notably, the ultra-competitive Ciarán McKeever was absent from the Mayo lapse due to suspension and the Armagh captain resumes at centre-back tomorrow, but his return is offset by the loss of Charlie Vernon, who was forced off at the Athletic Grounds a week ago.
With just one more home match remaining after tomorrow in a run of four games, this is one Dublin need to win if they are to make the semi-finals. They should do so comfortably.
ODDS: Dublin 1/5, Draw 10/1, Armagh 9/2