Key duels that can decide the clash of Cork and Tyrone

With the first of the All-Ireland semi-finals on this weekend, Ray Silke looks at two of the key duels that can decide who will advance to the 2009 All-Ireland final

Man to watch on Sunday: Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill will be one of the key players in Sunday's All Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Man to watch on Sunday: Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill will be one of the key players in Sunday's All Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Shields v Stephen O’Neill

Stephen O’Neill is an exceptional player.

In the 2003 All-Ireland final he shot 0-2 after coming on for Brian McGuigan and in the 2005 final he hit 0-4 from full-forward.

Indeed, Michael Shields has one of the toughest jobs in Gaelic football on his hands to try and shut him out.

To do so he will need to play him from either the shoulder at a minimum, or a step in front. To beat O’Neill you have to read the ball coming in extremely well and be absolutely on your game, otherwise he will rip you apart.

Shields is a terrific footballer and that is a good thing as he will have to utilise all his repertoire of skills to keep the Clann na nGael man in check.

Regardless of what is happening around him, he must stick to his individual task. O’Neill with time and space is lethal.

To have any realistic chance of nullifying O’Neill, the St Finbarr’s man must have his team-mates out the field putting really serious pressure on the player putting the ball into the full-forward position.

60:40 ball to the forward is too good, it must be 50:50 or less.

The gigantic dimensions and width of Croke Park have redefined how you must mark your man in the full-back line.

Pace is the most important attribute of all for a full-back line player, especially if you are up against a two-man full-forward line; however even being a speedster will not suffice, if genuine quality ball is put into the full-forward line.

Players of O’Neill’s and Owen Mulligan’s quality will get the run on you and they won’t let you out past them if the ball in is good enough.

Another problem is that O’Neill is two-footed which makes closing him down in possession a nightmare.

He is a cerebral and clever player and brings his team-mates into the game with his vision and accuracy if he is closed down.

At 28 years of age he is at the peak of his physical powers, and he will not be easy to physically or psychologically intimidate.

Space is a defender’s enemy and a forward’s comrade, and Shields and Conor Counihan need to tell Canty, O’Leary, and Miskella that they have a responsibility to get back and cut off angles and openings in front of the full-back line.

Shields is a top-class young defender, one of the best in the game; however I expect him to have to do a lot of covering and chasing this weekend, and if he keeps O’Neill to 0-3 or under, he will have done a first-rate day’s work.

Graham Canty v Tommy McGuigan

Canty is a hugely influential player for Cork. He needs to hold the middle and stop the runs of the likes of Kevin Hughes, Seán Cavanagh or Enda McGinley. However that will take personal discipline as Tyrone get so much joy down the flanks from the likes of Philip Jordan and Davy Harte on over-laps.

As a centre-back you cannot afford to rush out and leave a tunnel open through the defence. Canty and his half-back flankers will need Nicholas Murphy and Alan O’Connor if fit, working their socks off to help stem the flow of Tyrone attackers.

You will be cleaned out at centre-back and made to look terrible if extra free men are allowed to funnel down the middle without being tracked.

If you go to the advancing player, and the ball is flicked over your head and a goal opportunity is created, the safer option is to retreat and wait for covering wing-backs or half-forwards to get to the threat.

Tyrone will try to get Canty on the back foot and stop him powering up the field. He is not as impressive - (who is? ) - when he is put under pressure on the way out and you can expect Joe McMahon, Dooher, Owen Mulligan, and Tommy McGuigan to try and stop Canty’s forays at source.

I would expect Tyrone to specifically target Canty when he is in possession and try to disrupt his rhythm. They know how inspirational he is to Cork and if he could be made to look pedestrian, ordinary, and deflated it would be a real knife in Cork’s chances of winning.

If I were Canty I would take McGuigan on directly, early in the game on the way out when in possession.

On a one-to-one he should not be able to stop him. That would dent his confidence and would put pressure on him and his free-taking. Mickey Harte won’t leave McGuigan on for too long if he sees he does not have the power to stop Canty coming up the field.

We all know what the Bantry Blues man can offer going forward, but he must be mindful of his defensive duties on Sunday and sprint back to offer himself for breakdowns and reliving hand passes from his full-back line.

Don’t be surprised to see Seán Cavanagh go in on Canty at some stage to try and drag him around a bit and open up the centre of Cork’s rearguard.

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