Another night to remember in Croker on the cards

GAA: All Ireland Senior Football Championship Semi-Final

Back at yah: Aidan O'Shea will be doing his best to get the better of James McCarthy and his Dublin team tomorrow evening in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Back at yah: Aidan O'Shea will be doing his best to get the better of James McCarthy and his Dublin team tomorrow evening in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

This is where it starts to get interesting - not that the Connacht championship wasn’t interesting already, with plenty of twists and turns for a number of reasons.

But Dublin is the the bench-mark that Mayo have pitted themselves against for the past nine years. It may be 2012 since their last victory over Dublin in league or championship and, of the current players, just Lee Keegan and Aidan O’Shea started both that championship win and last month's Connacht final, with both Kevin McLoughlin and Colm Boyle on the bench last time around.

But nobody has pushed Dublin like Mayo have in their glorious decade of success. They’ve met eight times since 2012 in championship, and six times Dublin have emerged victorious, with two of the matches having ended in draws.

Fractions of inches have separated the sides on numerous occasions in those games and the encounters have almost blended into one contest over the years.

The feeling is that this time - it could be different. Dublin don’t look their imperious best, the gears are a little jumpy as they shift from third, through to fourth and up to fifth or sixth.

But they are still getting the job done, even with a spate of big name players - no more than Mayo - not available for them for a myriad of reasons. But it is going to take everything to go right for Mayo on Saturday night from the get-go for them to get over the line and return to the All Ireland final on the 70th anniversary of the last time the Sam Maguire was hoisted by a son of this soil in the Hogan stand.

If we take a look at the attacking sextet that started for both sides in their provincial final wins in recent weeks and last winter's All Ireland final, it does look like advantage Dublin - especially with the absence of Cillian O’Connor from the Mayo forward line.

Four of the six Mayo forwards who started against Galway: Ryan O’Donoghue, Tommy Conroy, Aidan O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor - all started in the All Ireland final last year.

O’Shea of course isn’t a nailed-on forward player, spending a lot of time in the middle third of the field. But the scoring return from those four starters in both games, in last year's All Ireland final, is just two points from Belmullet’s Ryan O’Donoghue. With Cillian O’Connor scoring the bulk of Mayo’s points that day with nine to his name - the free-taking duties have passed to O’Donoghue now, but the rest will have to seriously up their returns if Mayo are to have a chance at success.

On the other side of the coin - Dublin had five of their starting six forwards from the All Ireland final last Christmas still in situ for their recent Leinister final win over Kildare: Dean Rock (1-4 ), Con O’Callaghan (1-1 ), Ciaran Kilkenny (0-3 ), Nally Scully and Paddy Small - a combined 2-8 of the 2-14 they scored in the All Ireland final last year.

If we look back at the recent provincial finals, the six Mayo forwards that started, got half of Mayo’s score of 2-14 against Galway, with O’Donoghue getting 1-3, Conroy 0-3 and Darren McHale 0-1 . Dublin will have well marked out a plan to deal with O’Donoghue and Conroy in particular, going into this one.

In their Leinister final win over Kildare, Dublin racked up 0-20 with Rock hitting 0-5, Kilkenny 0-4, Scully 0-2, O’Callaghan 0-1 and Small 0-1 and Cormac Costello, who was an injury time sub last December when the game was won, chipping in with 0-4.

That’s 17 points out of a 20 point total for their attacking six on a day out, when, by consensus of many, Dublin weren’t at full tilt.

Of course Mayo aren’t Kildare and have proven themselves to be well about the Lillywhites in the pecking order - despite the 2018 ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ meeting of those sides.

But it does just demonstrate how on top of their game the Mayo back six will have to be, if they are going to get a long-awaited win against the metropolitans. Dublin can hurt you from anywhere in the forward line and that not is even considering the damage that Brian Fenton can do coming from the middle of the park.

It will be imperative for James Horan to get his match-ups right at the back on Dublin’s key attacking men - who he earmark to pick up the variety of attacking talent at Dublin’s disposal will be keenly watched from the thrown in.

Lee Keegan, Paddy Durcan and Oisin Mullin will be obvious choices to try and put Dublin’s attackers on the back foot as much as possible and potentially chip in with a few scores themselves.

Padraig O’Hora had to go off against Galway and Mayo will be hoping that the tenacious Ballina man will be back to add his combative style to the defensive unit, while Michael Plunkett and Stephen Coen will be more than capable of doing very good jobs on whoever they have to pick up. While the didn't start against Galway; Enda Hession and Eoghan McLaughlin are both more than able to come into the starting 15 and put in big shows at the back.

When it comes to McLaughlin, his impact from the bench, alongside Kevin McLoughlin at half-time, was massive against Galway in the Connacht final.

James Horan has a decision to make on both of them - both are more than worthy of a place in the starting 15 for Mayo, but does he take a chance on holding one or both of them back for a second half surge from the sidelines?

In their recent meetings it was very often the influence that Dublin had from the bench that swung the game in their favour in the closing stages - when the game is loosened up and legs are tired.

The powerful running of a fresh McLaughlin and the guile and play-making of McLoughlin - could be key to picking holes in the Dublin defence for Mayo to have a go for a few goals, which they will more than likely need to get over the line. These are all big calls to make for the manager - whether to hold players back and hope the game is there to be won or find yourself being pulled under early on and get criticised for not starting them. Who’d be a manager?

The middle of the park will be another key collision area that will have a major say on deciding the outcome of this game. Matthew Ruane had huge game against Galway in the middle third. Lots of neutrals would love to see him go toe-to-toe with Dublin’s talisman in the middle, Brian Fenton.

But neither James Horan or Dessie Farrell will want to see their main men tied up in that kind of battle and will want them driving away from each other in opposite directions. You’ll expect to see James McCarthy tasked with keeping tabs on Ruane and either Diarmuid O’Connor or Conor Loftus to have to keep pace with the flying Fenton.

Each little subplot and battle will be decisive as to where this game ends up, going at the final whistle. It’s going to be hard to keep tabs on everyone as it unfolds, but it promises to be another one to remember.

 

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