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It's time to find out if football's big guns are finally ready to fire

Dublin and Kerry have been untested but quarter-finals could ignite Croke Park
Dublin's Con O'Callaghan against Mick O'Grady of Kildare during the Leinster SFC final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Dublin's Con O'Callaghan against Mick O'Grady of Kildare during the Leinster SFC final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile

Keelan Sexton of Clare

Keelan Sexton of Clare

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Pádraig O'Hora of Mayo

David Clifford of Kerry in action against Pádraig O'Hora of Mayo

Ciarán Whelan

The inter-county football season can be broken up into three distinct sub-sections – league, provincial championship and All-Ireland Series. The All-Ireland Series is also the Croke Park Series and the eight counties who will showcase their talents at headquarters tomorrow and Sunday have diverse experiences on Jones’ Road.

For Dublin it has been a very happy hunting ground, for the most part, over the last decade while for Mayo, it has hosted some of their most heroic acts of escapology but has also been their house of pain.

Dublin v Cork

This will probably be the most straightforward contest of the four. Cork are probably the most maligned team of recent seasons and have been on the receiving end of some severe criticism.

A few poor league games left a cloud hanging over them but to be fair, stand-in manager John Cleary has instilled a bit of fight in their group.

You would expect the Rebels to set up similar to the way they did against Kerry, when they contained them for 50-odd minutes. Their approach to this clash will centre around endeavouring to ‘stay in the game’ for as long as possible.

Cork’s build-up play has lacked pace and if they are to trouble the Dubs they will need to transition far more quickly, take some risks and get precise early ball into their full-forward line of Stephen Sherlock, Brian Hurley and Cathail O’Mahony.

Dublin look to have re-discovered their mojo but blowing Kildare out of the water within ten minutes has left them really untested.

That aspect has never been an issue for Dublin in the most recent past but there are still lingering concerns around the depth of talent in their defence, possibly highlighted by Dessie Farrell’s invitation to Eoghan O’Donnell to join the squad. Most seem to think he is being looked at as an impact forward but maybe it is for defensive cover.

This lack of depth extends into the broader panel and it remains to be seen whether Dublin have the squad strong enough if they need to dig out a win.

Tomorrow is unlikely to provide any answers to these questions. The biggest change with Dublin in recent games has been the positioning and dynamic movement of their inside forward line. Keeping their three inside forwards, close to the edge of the small square has created space to pull any additional defenders out of position.

Cork’s Seán Powter is the best suited to the man-marking job on Con O’Callaghan but they will most likely continue with him in the role as an extra defender, sitting very deep to close down early kick passes into Dublin’s biggest area of threat.

Wins over Louth and Limerick, both in Páirc Ui Chaoimh, may have energised the Rebels but in Croke Park we cannot expect fireworks and the Dubs should win with some comfort.

Clare v Derry

The talk that Derry, having focused solely on Ulster, will not have the game-plan for Croke Park is a load of nonsense. Rory Gallagher has had four weeks to prepare his team meticulously for the next phase of this championship and they will continue to dictate the terms of the game with their defensive structure, despite the challenges that Croke Park will present.

Like Tyrone last year, when they broke down the Kerry threat, Gallagher will align his defensive system to play narrow and they will be prepared to offer the wider channels to the Clare forwards.

Clare, you would expect, are in bonus territory and I don’t mean that in any condescending way.

Colm Collins can also use their defensive structure to slow down Derry’s dangerous counter-attack.

You would expect that Clare will learn lessons from Derry’s clash with Donegal and the Banner won’t fear driving at the Oak Leaf County’s rearguard, even if they do turn over the ball on occasion.

If Clare were to stop Derry from raising any green flags they could stay in this game. However, you would expect that Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rodger will track Eoin Cleary and Keelan Sexton and that might just limit Clare’s offensive threat sufficiently to see Derry into the All-Ireland semi-final.

Galway v Armagh

This has the potential to be the pick of the weekend. Both these teams and managers were under pressure at the start of this campaign.

Now Pádraic Joyce has delivered a provincial championship, while Kieran McGeeney has found the right balance and Armagh are full of confidence after wins over Tyrone and Donegal.

This game is a fascinating tactical contest as both managers will want to operate on the front foot.

Armagh have found their form by mixing up the game-plan. They attack in numbers, going quick and direct when the opportunity arises, or they can work it through the lines. They have smart footballers throughout, with Stefan Campbell playing a very effective role in the middle third.

The movement in their forward line and the way they create space by interchanging Rian O’Neill, Rory Grugan and Jason Duffy has been very effective.

Galway have learned from past mistakes when their defence creaked while utilising a man-to-man strategy to push up on teams. They possess massive potential up front with the likes of Shane Walsh, Damien Comer and Robert Finnerty but I don’t believe they have the defence to really go after Armagh and risk leaving space at the back.

Their defence against Mayo was effective and at times against Roscommon they were devastating on the counter-attack. Donegal showed some weaknesses in Armagh’s approach when they transitioned very quickly from turnovers or quick kickouts.

Armagh to win, as Galway still can’t be trusted to deliver on their potential.

Kerry v Mayo

A fixture that has delivered some classic encounters and many are giving Mayo a boxer’s chance of delivering a knockout. It would be folly to write off Mayo, as they tend to save their best performances for quarter and semi-finals.

Kerry run the risk of being undercooked, but I am not buying it. There is too much evidence this year to suggest that Kerry have set themselves up to deliver consistency, with a solid defensive structure, and they are bringing more physicality to the middle third.

When you look at the key match-ups, you find yourself pairing Oisín Mullin, Lee Keegan, Pádraig O’Hora and Paddy Durcan against the Clifford brothers, Seánie O’Shea and Paul Geaney.

At the other end, we won’t spend too much time thinking about which Kerry defenders will pick up the Mayo threats. Maybe if Ryan O’Donoghue plays he will demand attention but after that it is Kerry that carry the real threat in their forward line.

This won’t stop Mayo creating scoring opportunities from deep but there are too many ifs and buts.

James Horan should throw a curveball at Kerry by deploying Aidan O’Shea as an out and out full-forward which could force Kerry to play Tadhg Morley closer to his full-back, creating a bit more room out the field for Mayo to build up a head of steam – or alternatively utilise an extra defender to try create gridlock around David Clifford.

Mayo will look to bring serious intensity to their press but will they adapt their approach to contain Kerry? The bottom line is if Kerry are afforded space they will put Mayo to the sword once again.


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