Cork in last chance title saloon
Cork City v Dundalk (Live on RTE2)
They have conquered Ireland and divided up between them the honours for the last five season, but is the duopoly between Dundalk and Cork City about to end?
Cork's reign as League of Ireland champions could come to an end this evening, as a win for Dundalk from their trip south to play City would leave them nine points clear of Cork, with five games to play, all of Dundalk's game against teams who are below the top four.
A win in Cork tonight would leave the Leesiders with an impossible task and some fans have already conceded defeat in the title race following last week's 4-2 loss away to Bohemians.
"We were really poor and made a lot of mistakes. The most important thing is that you have to bounce back and, all week, we have been working on that and giving a proper performance," says Cork boss John Caulfield.
"We have the team that has been up there with us for the last four or five years coming to Turner's Cross. The games are always hectic, big crowd, great atmosphere and we need to put a huge performance in."
But even a big response from Cork might not be enough, as the question being asked this week is: has Cork's time as one of the two dominant forces come to an end?
Cork and Dundalk have battled, and battled hard, for five seasons but City appear to be a side in decline, have been since Seán Maguire left 15 months ago, and the challenge is for at outsider to come in and challenge a Dundalk side who look likely to dominate for another few seasons.
We could do with a fresh challenger. As the excellent David Squires joked this week in his cartoon in the Guardian, the Champions League campaign now is merely about who gets the honour of losing to Real Madrid in the final next May, and there has been a similar finality and predictability about the League of Ireland season for half a decade.
Dundalk have been in the top two for five seasons running, no one apart from Cork and Dundalk have finished in the top two in the last four seasons, they will make up the top two again this term, and there is yet another Cork-Dundalk match-up in the FAI Cup final on the cards.
Shamrock Rovers had hoped to use this season to close the gap on the top two but that's yet to come to fruition: in the previous two seasons, Rovers finished 22 points behind the eventual champions; with a handful of games to play this term, the Hoops are 21 points adrift of the leaders.
St Patrick's Athletic (2013) were the last club from outside the Cork/Dundalk axis to land the title but they are now 30 points adrift
The Saints, unable to compete with the wages and contracts on offer at rival clubs, have looked to their youth and the sight of Darragh Markey (21) and Jamie Lennon (20) in the side is a plus but but it's ominous that talents like those could be lost to bigger teams, as manager Liam Buckley admits.
"Dundalk could sign my full squad in the blink of an eye with the money they would have made in Europe over the last few years," Buckley sighed.
Should Cork lose at home to Dundalk tonight, the 2018 title race is over. Then it's up to others to try and challenge. No easy task.