There are four Round 3 Super Eight games on this weekend but only one has any real relevance, only one has everything at stake. Kerry will beat Meath by as much as they want, Tyrone and Dublin are already through to the semi finals and aren't bothered while Cork take on Roscommon in a dead rubber with neither team having anything to play for.
Taking that into context, the eyes of the GAA world will be firmly focused on MacHale park at 6pm on Saturday, when Mayo take on Ulster champions Donegal in a good old-fashioned shoot out where winner takes all. The winners are in the semi final, the losers are out. Everything is on the line.
Let's not fool ourselves, Mayo have limped into this situation. But after the loss to Roscommon in the Connacht Championship, we would have taken the hand off you to have a game against Donegal to see who makes it into the semi final. It's the 2019 division one champions against the 2019 division two champions. On paper that would suggest only one result, but this time around, the division two champions - Donegal - are the hot favourites to progress.
The reasoning is simple; Mayo have struggled in this campaign because of a plethora of injuries and looked out of sorts in many games, while their opponents, Donegal, blitzed their way to another Ulster title and in Round 2 in the Super 8's, drew with Kerry, in what was most definitely the game of the year so far. Mayo played Meath that same day and ended up winning comfortably in the end - miraculously - I might add. Had Mayo played Donegal that day, taking their performance against Meath into consideration, we would have lost by double digits, no question. A journalist leaving Croke Park after the double header compared the games as being akin to watching a junior match (Mayo and Meath ) followed by a senior game (Donegal and Kerry ) - which almost provoked a reaction - but I bit my lip.
The beauty of this weekend's game is we have absolutely no idea what is going to happen, it's the Mayo way. We have been around the block too many times to expect Mayo to just roll over. We have also been at many games this year when the team looked dead on their feet and struggling badly because of the unavailability of so many players. Everything has to click into place tomorrow evening for Mayo to win the game.
If Mayo have any more than two or three players misfiring or not putting in at least an 8/10 performance, then it could be a slow painful death. The two-week break will have helped matters no end. Match fitness is something many on the outside seem to struggle to get to grips with. Players injured for a prolonged period, like Diarmuid O'Connor and Mattie Ruane, are certainly not or can't be match fit. I'm even hearing Tom parsons' name being mentioned by some very optimistic folk - which is ridiculous, considering Tom hasn't played since May last year. He certainly can't be match fit. No matter how much you train or look after yourself, nothing can prepare you for the white heat of a championship encounter like a build-up of championship games. Your body is asked to do things and to go places that no training can prepare you for.
Hopefully Mayo will have some of the long-term injured personnel to call on for a cameo to give us a much-needed boost. Paddy Durcan and Keith Higgins, if deemed fit, could be the only ones capable of lasting the full duration of the game. It literally could be easier to win the Lotto now than trying to pick Mayo's line up. The mystery and silence from the Mayo camp surrounding the injuries adds to the intrigue. I have no idea what to expect.
David Clarke’s performance in goal is key. Donegal will obviously target a kick-out weakness and vulnerability that leads to panic in the Mayo defence. Against Kerry, Donegal lost all of the Kerry kick-outs in the first half, mainly due to the impressive kicking of Shane Ryan in the Kerry goal. However, when Donegal were losing in the second half, they went after Ryan’s kick-outs like starved hyenas. Kerry had to work so hard just to maintain possession but Donegal's high press paid dividends.
Mayo need be ready, David Clarke needs to be ready, this is going to happen from the get-go on Saturday. Figuring out how to stop Donegal is far from simple. They have four key players. Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan proved it's possible to shackle Jaime Brennan, keeping him scoreless. Brennan will either be shook of confidence after being humbled by O'Sullivan or hell-bent on redemption. He needs to be monitored closely. However keeping the 3 M's quiet is a different scenario - McHugh, McBrearty and Murphy have been in sensational form for Donegal. They accounted for 1-14 of the 1-20 total against Kerry. A definite plan has to be put in place to negate their influence. Between three and five Mayo players have to sacrifice their own games for that to occur. Three players in direct opposition to Donegal's danger men with two more on hand in a time of need. McHugh needs to be stopped at source, he is a nightmare to shackle. Mayo need to be disciplined and crowd the space in front of him. Keith Higgins or Paddy Durcan, if fit, may be chosen as his direct opponent. Whether Lee Keegan will be assigned to Paddy McBrearty (if fit ) or the human train that is Michael Murphy - is anybody’s guess. Mayo need Aidan O Shea in beast mode - when he is, his team mates respond. We need everything left on the field.
The minor lads and senior ladies put in two sterling performances against Dublin and Donegal last weekend to secure quarter-final and semi-final spots for their respective teams. Those performances will surely give the senior men and our supporters a huge morale boost.