All-Ireland semi-final preview; Dublin v Mayo
Let’s begin with a confession.
I, no more than any pundit, doesn’t really know how this contest will pan out. The best we can do is offer opinions on what might happen.
This is a particular shot in the dark as the form guide – particularly in the case of the Dubs - is practically useless.
Their last serious competitive match was the League final against Cork which was played on April 26!
Having blown away Longford and Kildare in their opening two matches in the Leinster series, their subsequent championship performances against Westmeath and Fermanagh were less flamboyant.
But given that there was never the slightest prospect of them losing either game the chances are that they free-wheeled through them with a view to peaking in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series.
However, the danger with this strategy is that when it comes to form it’s not like flipping a switch and turning on the power on any given day.
Mayo’s form guide is slightly more informative, though not definitive. Galway gave them a decent game in the first half of their Connacht championship clash while goals either side of half time ended their quarter final against Donegal as a contest.
But unlike the Connacht final when they were ruthless from start to finish, they were unbelievably sloppy in the final half an hour against the Ulster side.
Mayo doesn’t fear Dublin in Croke Park having beaten them in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final.
Dublin avenged that defeat in the 2013 All-Ireland final so in some respects this is the definitive rubber between the counties.
Both camps are desperate for victory, though for entirely different reasons. Dublin is aiming to exorcise the ghosts of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final when as raging hot favourites they experienced a defensive meltdown against Donegal.
For Mayo the challenge is very simple. Arguably they have been the most consistent team in championship football in the last five years. But their achievements have been overshadowed by their failure to complete the deal and bring Sam back across the Shannon.
This is Game 4 in this year’s odyssey and another loss - coming on the back of their defeat to Kerry at the semi-final stage last year – will reopen the debate about whether Mayo can ever win an All-Ireland.
This debate overlooks the fact that Dublin, for example, failed to even reach an All-Ireland final between 2005 and 2009 even though they were unbeaten in the Leinster series at the time.
Such is the desperation for a win in both camps that the game might not live up to expectations in terms of being a classic.
In the event of one team trying to protect a lead coming down the final straight don’t be surprised to be countless examples of cynical play.
There is an unproven theory that for a team to win an All-Ireland they need a forward in their ranks who when he hits form is virtually unmarkable. Think Kieran Donaghy (2006); Alan Brogan (2011) or James O’Donoghue (2014).
Mayo has never possessed a forward of this calibre but Aidan O’Shea’s tour de force performances on the edge of the square in 2015 suggests that he could fit the role. So far he has scored 4-5 and much of Dublin’s strategy will revolve neutralising him.
They were unlikely to take any drastic action; Jim Gavin will trust Rory O’Carroll – who has a decent track record in this regard – to prevent O’Shea from getting the ball into his hand – and there will be a lot of focus on disrupting the supply lines to O’Shea.
But it hasn’t been forward failings which has prevented Mayo from winning the All-Ireland. Instead it has been their tendency to concede goals – particularly soft ones – in the key matches.
Two in the first ten minutes of the 2012 All-Ireland final; Bernard Brogan’s strike against the run of play in the 2013 final and James O’Donoghue’s strike at the death in the drawn All-Ireland semi-final for obvious examples.
The deployment of Barry Moran and Colm Boyle as twin sweepers in the quarter final against Donegal gave their beleaguered full back line much needed protection and significantly Mayo kept a clean sheet for the first time in the 2015 championship.
But Dublin doesn’t have a full forward in the Michael Murphy mode and deploy a different system to Donegal.
It revolves around using kick passes – particularly from Jack McCaffrey into the space in front of Bernard Brogan.
Relieved of his free taking a duty this summer, Brogan is back to top form, hitting 5-16 from play. Mayo though will be confident that their best man marker Keith Higgins can reduce his threat.
But the Mayo full backline will still need protection as the odds are that Dublin will switch their other form forward Diarmuid Connolly to the edge of the square.
Mayo joint boss Pat Holmes doesn’t need reminding of the devastation that Connolly can cause if he hits form. His tour de force performance in the 2014 All-Ireland club final for St Vincent’s ended Castlebar Mitchels’ dream of winning the title. Holmes was the Castlebar boss at the time.
Moving Connolly to the edge of the square serves two purposes. It is designed to exploit a perceived weakness in the Mayo rearguard as well as presenting Mayo with a huge dilemma.
The chances are they will have earmarked Lee Keegan as Connolly’s designated marker. But if the Westport man follows Connolly to the edge of the Mayo square it will reduce his influence going forward.
Mayo will make a massive effort to disrupt Stephen Cluxton’s rapid fire restarts which are an integral element in Dublin’s game plan. Jim Gavin needs Paul Flynn back to his best while Ciaran Kilkenny and Connolly will also be targets for Cluxton’s kick-outs.
Dublin will also press up on Mayo’s kick outs but the Connacht champions will be optimistic that regardless of what pairing Dublin use at midfield Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons will win the aerial duel.
Dublin though has an advantage in the free-taking battle as Dean Rock has been ultra-reliable this summer while Cillian O’Connor has been less assured.
It promises to be a fascinating game. But despite an apparent dip in form in the latter stages of the summer Dublin ought to do enough to set up an All-Ireland showdown against Kerry for the thirteenth time.