Preview: Armagh v Donegal

Michael Murphy is sure to be a key man for the visitors
Michael Murphy is sure to be a key man for the visitors

The blockbuster clash in the Ulster Football Championship should be a tight affair, according to Sean McGoldrick.

Ulster SF quarter-final

Armagh v Donegal, Athletic Ground, Sunday 2pm Live on RTE 2 and BBC 2 NI

Championship encounters between Armagh and Donegal tend to be epoch-like.

In 2007 Donegal ended Armagh’s three-year unbeaten record in the Ulster series. Four years later Donegal’s abject capitulation to the Orchard County in an All-Ireland qualifier in Crossmaglen finally convinced the County Board to trust Jim McGuinness to manage the team. The rest is history!

At face value this ought to be relatively straight forward task for the battle hardened visitors who, after eliminating Tyrone in the preliminary round, look on course for their fourth Ulster title in five seasons.

They finished thirteen places ahead of Armagh in the Allianz League though Armagh did win the Division 3 title in Kieran McGeeney’s inaugural season. But nothing is ever set in stone in the Ulster series where regardless of form every team harbours ambitions of beating any other team.

Mind you, the four games played so far have gone on form and Armagh are quoted as 2/1 outsiders to win today despite home advantage.

Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney summed up the game when he said that Donegal could win without playing to their best while his side needs to play out of their skins in order to reach the semi-final.

Only a point separated the sides when they clashed in last season’s All-Ireland quarter final. Granted Armagh was on a roll at the time gaining momentum through the qualifiers. But they demonstrated in Croke Park how Donegal can be beaten.

Armagh will set-up their team in a mirror image of Donegal – so expect 13 men behind the ball for most of the seventy minutes. Psychologically it’s a boost to Armagh that the game is at the Athletic Ground though paradoxically the smaller pitch will suit the physically more mature Donegal side.

So Armagh needs to avoid getting drawn into a physical battle despite the temptation to prove their manhood in front of their own fans. Crucially they must keep the right side of match referee David Coldrick who will have a significant influence on the game.

Donegal’s win over Tyrone wasn’t as impressive as it appeared at first glance.  The visitors lacked self-belief but they had Donegal in trouble when they pressed high up the pitch and prevented them from initiating attacks. They also exposed weakness both in the centre and the left flank of their defence when Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte ran at them.

Armagh will have to stop the Donegal ‘carriers’ Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey from breaking at pace from inside their own; avoid giving away frees from midfield onwards and keep tight leashes on Michael Murphy – who is likely to have Charlie Vernon for company all afternoon – and Paddy McBrearty.

The key to Armagh’s game plan is their capacity to link their defensive and attacking play by using foot passes. The ball travels faster than any retreating player and Armagh’s plan will resolve around absorbing Donegal pressure in a discipline and then hitting them on the counter-attack. Of course, Donegal will be trying to do precisely the same thing.

Much will depend on how relatively unknown Armagh players such as giant target man Andrew Murnin, Ciaron O’Hanlon and Ethan Rafferty perform while Tony Kernan’s accuracy from frees will be critical.

The smart money is on Donegal. But father time will eventually catch up this team. It is interesting that this is only their second quarter final match away from home since 2011.

Less than 12 scores could win the match and if Armagh manages to beat Paul Durcan and raise a green flag they could fashion a famous win. And it mightn’t do Donegal’s All-Ireland chances terminal damage to escape the claustrophobic Ulster championship.

Regardless of who wins they still have to beat Derry and either Monaghan or Fermanagh in order to reach the All-Ireland quarter finals.

Verdict: Armagh