This Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final clash between 2013 All-Ireland champions Dublin, and the team they defeated by a single point in that final, Mayo, has the entire country anticipating a humdinger of a game. Croke Park itself is a total sell-out, so there will be 82,000 plus a few stragglers at the game itself, and about 750,000 viewers tuning in on TV.
And with the quality of players on both sides, and two of the top three teams in the country in action, it has the potential to be the game of the championship. It would be no surprise at all if that came to pass, as these two sides have produced some truly fantastic games over the past decade, with the 2006 classic where Ciarán McDonald kicked a stunning winner to edge Mayo to a 1-16 to 2-12 win in the All-Ireland semi-final, providing epic entertainment.
Only Keith Higgins and probably David Clarke, and perhaps Andy Moran (Mayo ) and Stephen Cluxton (Dublin ), are likely to start this Sunday’s joust, with both Higgins and Cluxton ironically both sides' respective captains. Former all-star Alan Dillon has also seen regular action for Mayo off the bench during the year and he might play a cameo role on Sunday too. In fact the inter-county Gaelic football season could do with a truly top game on Sunday as the action has been underwhelming in the main. A good few commentators felt last Sunday’s game with Kerry and Tyrone was hugely impressive, however it never really grabbed you by the shirt tails and shook you. It was entertaining in a grim sort of way, and with the weather conditions and the massed Tyrone defence at times it was more tactical, than enthralling.
Calling a winner
Calling a winner for next Sunday is not easy, however I would give a very slight nod to Mayo if they can get their match-ups right and get plenty of supply into Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor in their full-forward line. Jim Gavin has correctly described O’Shea as the form player in the country, and his clash with Dublin full-back and 2013 all-star Rory O’Carroll will have a huge bearing on who will be facing Kerry in the final. O’Shea has been in superb form in the three championship matches we have seen him in thus far, namely Galway, Sligo, and Donegal. However Sunday will be a massive step up in intensity and speed on anything he has faced in that position and it will be interesting to see how Dublin play him.
Any team that has left him in a one-on-one with their full-back has been well beaten, and it is unlikely that Jim Gavin will not have come up with a specific tactic to restrict O’Shea’s influence. O’Carroll is a very experienced and capable defender and he has won two All-Ireland medals at full back (2011 and 2013 ), however, he would not have the height or power to handle the Breaffy man if O’Shea gets good supply, so he will need defensive support. Where that comes from, or how Dublin supply an extra body to try to nullify O'Shea when Mayo are on the attack, will be interesting to observe.
Pressurise Cluxton’s kick-outs
I would expect Mayo to try to put pressure on Dublin on Cluxton’s kick-outs, and to push up on them. They will want to try to get the five time All-Star goalie to make a few errors, similar to what Kerry did on Neil Morgan last weekend. If he is forced to kick it long, the percentage of ball that Dublin retain will be reduced. To allow Dublin easy and free possession from his restarts, considering how athletic and pacey they are in all areas of the pitch, but particularly with Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, and Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly on the wings, would be asking for trouble. In that regard too, the entire Mayo forward line have a big job to do as regards tracking their markers when they are not in possession, as even Dublin corner backs like Johnny Cooper and Philly McMahon are well able to bomb forward, and they love to set up rapid counter-attacks. One area that Mayo can have an advantage is in the midfield sector where it is time for Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons to really leave their mark on a game at the highest level. Both men were in top form against Donegal and they will want to build on those displays. They are capable of dominating the middle over Bryan Fenton and either Michael Darragh Macauley or Denis Bastick, who was replaced by Macauley in their win over Fermanagh. The game has some potentially explosive match-ups with the likes of Keith Higgins picking up Bernard Brogan, Lee Keegan on Diarmuid Connolly, and Kevin McLoughlin on Jack McCaffrey. Dublin centre-forward Ciarán Kilkenny is another player who Mayo must target as he is a superb link player, and Holmes and Connelly must assign a player, perhaps Colm Boyle, to stop his influence. The bookies have Dublin as hot 4/7 favourites with Mayo at 15/8, and the not implausible draw at 8/1. It is probably overly hopeful to expect a real shoot-out at the OK Corral, however ideally we get a mighty match, and I for one would like to see Mayo get back to another final and have another crack at Kerry.