Donegal and Kildare making their move
Rising duo join big-hitters in race for Sam, writes Colm Keys
Published 19/07/2011 | 05:00
And then there were 13. After 49 games in the football championship, a clear picture is beginning to emerge. All the heaviest hitters are still standing, but the shortlist of realistic All-Ireland contenders remains much the same.
The two most significant movers, however, are Kildare and newly-crowned Ulster champions Donegal.
Kildare have recovered from their Leinster championship exit so impressively and they will arrive in the All-Ireland quarter-finals as battle-hardened of anyone despite their injury list.
Of the five Ulster teams remaining, Donegal may have cause for most ambition. There's a feel of the Tyrone 2003 team about them -- not just the way they set themselves up, but the novelty attached to their journey.
We assess the strengths, weaknesses and the overall chances of the teams that remain in the race for Sam:
Still the team with the most attacking quality around. Darran O'Sullivan has been a revelation, and Declan O'Sullivan has underlined why he might just be the most important Kerry player of his generation.
The manner of their second-half fade-out against Cork is a concern. But if they get over a quarter-final, they'll be very difficult to beat.
Positives: Some of their attacking play has been as fluent as anything they have produced over the last five years.
Negatives: The gap between the Munster final and All-Ireland quarter-final -- it could be five weeks. Will they have the staying power when attention turns to Croke Park?
From the strongest squad in the country over the last two years, Cork are now looking more than a little vulnerable. Ciaran Sheehan's injury possibly does enough to hand more initiative to Kerry, on top of the result in Killarney.
With Sheehan and Colm O'Neill out, Cork can't afford any more injuries to any of their full-forwards if they are to continue playing an orthodox formation.
Positives: They are All-Ireland champions, possess the strongest midfield and can stay going in any game.
Negatives: Injuries, weakness in the full-back line and a slight question mark as to whether the burning desire to push on is really there.
Have done everything asked of them up to now, even if the performance against Wexford was less than impressive. But timing could be everything for them.
Their dependency on Bernard Brogan was never more obvious than against Wexford, when his radar broke down. He has to rediscover something close to last year's form for them to challenge Kerry and Cork.
Positives: Rory O'Carroll's spring absence hasn't affected his performances, their defensive system remains strong and Alan Brogan is back to his very best.
Negatives: The Stephen Cluxton kick-out has been sussed by opponents and is no longer the advantage it once was. Injuries to Michael Darragh Macauley and Eoghan O'Gara limit options.
They're not just sitting up in the recovery position after losing a Leinster semi-final to Dublin -- they are out of the bed, bouncing around and showing no ill-effects from that reversal.
Their character is beyond reproach. The way they have steeled themselves for the qualifiers once again underlines big hearts and really big ideas.
They are the consummate 'team' and it feels as if they have broken into the top-four tier. Ultimately they must deliver against Dublin, Cork, Kerry or even Tyrone to prove that credential. They haven't done that in Kieran McGeeney's four years in charge.
Positives: Mick Foley's regeneration at full-back, Emmet Bolton's magnificent form and their collective force of will.
Negatives: The necessity of having to keep John Doyle at midfield -- how he would thrive playing beneath Tomas O'Connor.
donegal have a plan and they are sticking to it. They have yet to concede a double-digit score in four championship games and with a forward like Michael Murphy, why shouldn't they dare to dream? Their next match may not be their last.
Positives: The strength of the team unity and their faith in the system that Jim McGuinness has laid out for them.
Negatives: Can such a game thrive in Croke Park where it matters most against better attacks than they have met so far?
Does Mickey Harte continue to twist or stick between introducing more fresh faces or staying loyal to some of the older guard? Peter Harte has served the process of change well, Mark Donnelly too, but Tyrone look some distance from the team they were even in 2009, never mind in 2008.
Positives: They are coming through the back door again, a situation they have relished in the past, and a win in Omagh on Saturday could be a real catalyst, with Roscommon to come.
Negatives: Sometimes you wonder if the same manic drive that once underpinned them still exists.
THEIR form has collapsed in the middle of the season with no shortage of talk about unrest within the camp. However, the surge they had on Saturday night to pull clear of Antrim will do wonders for confidence.
Positives: Dan Gordon is really settling into full-back, Danny Hughes appears to have shaken off injury problems.
Negatives: Martin Clarke's influence is not nearly as pronounced as it was last year.
James Horan has landed a Connacht title at his first attempt as manager and whatever happens after this, he must consider himself to be in bonus territory. The team is taking better shape in recent weeks.
Positives: They have found a reliable free-taker in Cillian O'Connor and have given Aidan O'Shea some space at midfield.
Negatives: How high was the standard in Connacht this season? After all, this Mayo team required extra-time in London.
They haven't been the same since defeating Down at home at the end of May and their struggle to deal with Wicklow on successive Saturdays points to a deeper malaise.
Positives: Jamie Clarke can conjure goals from nothing.
Negatives: The county is not exactly buzzing about their prospects, which can feed into the team's mentality. A lack of pace throughout clearly exists.
Apart from the dearth of time they have to recover from last Sunday's defeat, there was plenty of evidence against Donegal to suggest that rumours of their transformation have been a little exaggerated. Struggled for scores on Sunday.
Positives: Not many. But they've won more qualifier games than any other county.
Negatives: Eoin Bradley's absence on top of his brother Paddy's really does make a difference.
The manner of their response after being hit with two goals by Dublin suggests a survival instinct that has been cultivated in them. If they stick with the same defensive alignment they adopted against Dublin, they can prosper.
Positives: Limerick is a game they will feel they have to win to ensure 2011 is a very good season.
Negatives: Losing to Dublin in the Leinster final still looks like an opportunity lost nine days on. That will be much harder to pick up from than it was from the hammering three years ago.
Not all is lost for them. They performed creditably on Sunday in tough conditions and their improvement over two years must be really satisfying.
Positives: In difficult conditions in both games so far, Donie Shine has showed a lot of quality.
Negatives: The quality of their back-up looks inferior to most of the other counties that remain.
From the horror of a heavy Munster semi-final beating to Kerry, they have recovered impressively with wins over Offaly and Waterford. A great opportunity to play a championship match at Croke Park awaits if they beat Wexford. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility for a team with momentum and some decent forwards.
Positives: Have put the Kerry defeat behind them and in Stephen Kelly, Ian Ryan and Ger Collins they have forwards to score.
Negatives: Operating without that colossus John Galvin may be the difference the next day.