After four wins on the bounce Rebels could fall to bouyed up Mayo
Published 13/03/2014 | 05:26
WHEN the league fixtures were announced a few months back, Cork would have targeted their four home games as the ones in which they were most likely to pick up the points they needed to ensure their survival in Division 1 at least.
They have already won three of those, but they have also beaten Dublin in Croke Park, and they now require just one more victory to be guaranteed a place in the semi-finals. It means the pressure has been reduced to a large extent ahead of their last three games, and, more importantly perhaps, their confidence has been boosted enormously, so much so that they will be in no way intimidated by the task of taking on Mayo in Castlebar next Sunday.
For all that, it's probably going to be Cork's stiffest challenge to date, bearing in mind that, unlike Dublin when they squared up to the Rebels, Mayo badly need the points on offer in order to keep their semi-final aspirations on track.
James Horan's men made a stuttering start to the league, losing their opening two games against Kildare and Tyrone. They were on the road for both, and they also had major injury problems to contend with, which have eased to some degree in the meantime.
It's expected they will be able to put out their strongest team in the league this season against Cork, and, with two consecutive wins on the board over Kerry and Westmeath, they are obviously building up a bit of momentum now.
With a visit to Croker to take on the Dubs to follow, they will view the showdown with Cork as their best chance to move into the top four in the group before completing their programme with a home game against Derry.
Should they lose on Sunday, it's unlikely they will qualify for the play-offs, so it's probably a make-or-break game as far as they are concerned, and it can be taken for granted they will be fully fired up for it.
It will be very interesting to see how Cork measure against a Mayo side that, having contested the last two All-Ireland finals, will hold a definite edge in terms of experience. Cork will be boosted by the availability of dual players Aidan Walsh and Eoin Cadogan, who lined out with the hurlers against Offaly at the weekend, while Tom Clancy of Clonakilty, a late withdrawal for the game against Derry last Sunday due to illness, is also expected to be return at centre-back.
There could be a few more changes to the starting fifteen from the Derry game, and maybe Colm O'Neill will be in from the outset this time, having shown he is ready to go again with two impressive cameo appearances against Dublin and Derry.
That's even more likely if Paul Kerrigan is ruled out as a result of the injury he sustained against Derry, although Donncha O'Connor and the highly promising Donal Óg Hodnett, who had a hamstring problem last weekend, are other options open to the management.
Whether or which, Cork will be able to field an attacking sextet that is rich in fire-power, and a fascinating shoot-out looks on the cards with a Mayo side possessing a similar penchant for free-flowing, expansive football.
No doubt, Cork will give a good account of themselves, and there is every chance they can extend their winning sequence to five games, but Brian Cuthbert made it clear prior to the commencement of the league that he expected his developing side to experience a few blips over the course of the campaign.
And, considering Mayo need the win more pressingly, and will be favoured with home advantage, the odds are that Cork will be forced to emerge empty-handed from Castlebar on Sunday.