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comment Control, precision and patience...that's what sets this Dublin apart from the rest

Mayo's match-ups will be crucial but untested champions show few signs of vulnerability


Dublin's Con O'Callaghan powers past Lee Keegan and Aidan O'Shea in last year's semi-final

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan powers past Lee Keegan and Aidan O'Shea in last year's semi-final

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan powers past Lee Keegan and Aidan O'Shea in last year's semi-final

Sated ambition, change in management and playing personnel, an empty stadium, an absent Hill, 2020, a winter championship, knockout format - one by one the potential pitfalls have been raised, and one by one they have been tossed aside without piercing the shields that have kept Dublin at arm's length from the rest over the last six seasons.

Dublin arrive in an All-Ireland final as the warmest favourites they have been for any of the 10 (including two replays) that they have contested in the 10 seasons since their 2011 breakthrough.

Even now a compelling case can't be built around the county that has pushed them hardest over the stretch.

The 2020 All-Ireland SFC has been reduced to faint hopes that at best the final can be competitive and that Mayo can summon something from somewhere to land a punch.

Dublin are on course to win a championship with an average winning margin in each game in double figures, already running at more than 17 points from four games.

When Kerry won the 1979 All-Ireland title they won each of their four games by an average of almost 20 points.

Kerry were at their peak then, just as Dublin are now, certainly between this year and last year they appear more clinical and precise in everything they do with mistakes so rare they jump out at you.

They have looked every inch a team unburdened now by the chase for five in a row, that the pursuit of a winter, knockout championship in the midst of a pandemic is actually a motivator, not a distraction.

Everything up to now though has to be qualified by the standard of opponent they faced, three 2021 Division 2 teams and a Division 3 team, albeit one that took out Monaghan and Donegal in Ulster.

Mayo will play Division 2 football in 2021 too and while the league table doesn't generally lie, an exception can surely be made for a county that spent the previous 23 years in the top flight. It counts that they have the tradition of carrying the fight to Dublin, even if they haven't beaten them in 16 games (nine league and seven championship) since their last win in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final and lost last year's semi-final by 10 points.

James Horan has had the conviction to integrate new players with Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Ryan O'Donoghue and Tommy Conroy all starters now and, for the most part, adapting quickly and bringing impetus.

It has left warriors of past battles with Dublin, Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Séamus O'Shea and Tom Parsons on the margins. Boyle, such a force against Dublin in these games in the past, rarely makes the 26 these days.


Lee Keegan of Mayo scores in last year's semi-final

Lee Keegan of Mayo scores in last year's semi-final

Lee Keegan of Mayo scores in last year's semi-final

The match-ups, as always when these two meet, are crucial. For Mayo, the same central question as last year revolves around who takes Con O'Callaghan. Then, it was Lee Keegan. And at the outset, it looked the right choice. But O'Callaghan made a mockery of it, turning him twice for goals in that extraordinary 12-minute spell when the swing was 12 points, undoubtedly the best this Dublin team has produced. And that says something.

Keegan was left rooted to the ground for those goals though he recovered to score a third goal against Dublin in successive championship matches, surely unprecedented for a defender. But it was scant consolation.

This time Mullin looks primed for O'Callaghan duties. Mullin is in his first full season and he has pace though it's best generated going the other direction. If O'Callaghan moves out as he has done in most of his matches, that suits Mayo.

Chris Barrett and Dean Rock are locked on once again, so the next big question for the Connacht champions is Ciarán Kilkenny.

Playing a different role this year, one similar to his U-21 days where he spends more time in the inside line, Kilkenny has been racking up the scores impressively with 1-17.

Paddy Durcan is now Mayo's prized defensive asset, capable of shut-pouts on players like Shane Walsh, Ryan McHugh and even Jack McCaffrey to a degree last year but also adding attacking penetration at the other end. In 2017, Kilkenny was tracked successfully by Keegan but Durcan looks better equipped now. It's a difficult trade-off for Mayo, especially if Kilkenny and O'Callaghan switch.

The other dilemma for Mayo is Brian Fenton who, with Kilkenny, took control in that third quarter of the 2019 semi-final. Who do they commit to tracking the game's foremost midfielder who has reeled off four points in two of his last three games? Matthew Ruane has athleticism but not necessarily the physicality, so is it one for Stephen Coen?

The other enduring issue for Mayo, tied to Fenton, is getting enough of their own kick-outs into safe hands. But even Kerry, in last year's final replay, won all their own and were still six points adrift.

Dublin manager Dessie Farrell has grown into the role and has been confident enough to promote players like Robbie McDaid and Paddy Small who served him well at U-21 level. Brian Howard and Paul Mannion, two current All-Stars, have not yet been able to break back into the starting team though Howard could by this evening.

There have been times in recent weeks when Mayo have been devastating - the first half against Tipperary in the All-Ireland semi-final and Galway in the league on the first day back after the resumption when they scored four and three goals respectively. Even the second half against Tyrone (in league) when they were seeking to eat into a big deficit produced strong spells, though they ultimately lost.

Man-to-man, Mayo have a sliver of hope. Weighing up the head-to-heads it's possible to build a case. But that always overlooks the greater collective strength of Dublin, a team with some of the greatest individual footballers to play the game and yet still greater than the sum of their parts. The control, precision and patience they bring to games is undiminished. They win by seven.

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Online Editors