Peter Canavan: Best of enemies set to deliver another battle of wits and muscle
Absence of key Donegal men gives Monaghan the edge
After a famine, there's supposed to be a feast. So, on that basis, I'm looking forward to tomorrow evening's clash between Donegal and Monaghan with the same sense of anticipation as the schoolboy waiting for the last bell of term before the summer holidays. I really believe this could be a cracker.
The first five games in Ulster were, let's be honest, dreadful affairs. With the exception of the Donegal-Fermanagh quarter-final, the other four games could not be described as 'contests' - they certainly wouldn't fit that bill under the Trade Descriptions Act.
The lack of intensity was frightening and it was far more removed from the days when I was playing, which is not that long ago, when every uncensored Ulster Championship match report used to contain the three 'Bs' - batter, brawn and battlefield.
Those words did, at least, surface in the description of last Sunday's Ulster semi-final between Tyrone and Cavan.
It wasn't a classic, but it most definitely was a contest and it was gripping for long periods. Mickey Harte's men probably should have closed the deal, but you've got to admire the way Cavan used their brawn, and brain, to batter their way through enemy lines and snatch an equalising goal at the death.
As a Tyrone man, I'll have to concede it was a bit galling, but those skirmishes in Clones have restored my faith in Ulster football and reaffirmed my belief that the second semi-final in Kingspan Breffni Park tomorrow evening will be even better. To be honest, ever since the draw was made last October, this meeting was always on the cards and whetted my appetite immediately.
The fact that there's little love lost between Donegal and Monaghan adds a proper edge to proceedings. Familiarity has definitely bred contempt for this pair. This is their fourth championship meeting in as many years, with the previous clashes coming in the last three Ulster finals. Granted, they haven't been thrillers but they have produced games of compelling intrigue.
Donegal, aided by their 2012 All-Ireland heroics, have the higher profile of the two, yet Monaghan have the bragging rights based on their two victories to one. The first of those Monaghan wins in 2013 is filed under the 'shock' category as Malachy O'Rourke had the balls to set out a plan to beat Donegal at their own game - packing the defence to break down Donegal attacks, before hitting them on the counter - and his players did it with six points to spare.
While Donegal gained revenge in 2014, Monaghan wrestled back the Anglo-Celt Cup last year after a titanic battle. Considering that Monaghan didn't score for the last 20 minutes, it was a feat in itself for them to hold on for a one-point win.
When you factor in that only one goal (by Monaghan) has been scored in those 210-plus minutes of football, the neutrals might ask what has me so excited? Well, the sideline battle between O'Rourke and Rory Gallagher should tickle all tactical taste buds, plus there are several personal duels which should be worth the admission price alone.
One of the most obvious match-ups in the offing on tomorrow evening is the likely clash between Vinny Corey and Michael Murphy and you'd have to say the Monaghan defender has had the better of the exchanges to date. He kept Murphy scoreless from play last year, which again underlined Donegal's over-reliance on the big Glenswilly man for the big occasions. This will be a serious battle of wits and muscle.
Like his captain, Paddy McBrearty is another Donegal forward who has found it difficult to get much change out of his Monaghan opponent in recent seasons, Colin Walshe. McBrearty will have Walshe in his ear again and he needs to be setting the tempo here if Donegal are to come out on top. The same could be said for Ryan McHugh who's likely to be shadowed around the field by Ryan McAnespie. The Monaghan U-21 star should have the legs to match McHugh, but the Donegal man's edge in big-game experience gives him an advantage.
At the other end, Eamon McGee - in the absence of his suspended brother Neil - is likely to take up the gauntlet to keep tabs on Conor McManus, or try to anyhow. It's not an exact science but there's a strong case to be argued that McManus has been the best forward in the country over the past 18 months. I haven't seen better. He's a class act on the ball, but like all class players, he's more than willing to do the work off it as well. Cutting out the supply lines to him will be key to Rory Gallagher's battle-plan.
It has to be said the Donegal manager got his tactics spot-on at half-time the last day, after his team were reduced to 14 men against Fermanagh. I heard some pundits saying that he should deploy Michael Murphy on the edge of the square and launch in the high ball. But he stuck with the Donegal way - persisting with their overloaded defensive style, strong ball-carrying ability and quick counter-attacks - and also got them to step up the pace that helped find chinks in the Fermanagh defence
The Donegal players also showed in that second half they still have the hunger, but one thing that would concern me is their tendency to give away silly frees in very scoreable positions. Discipline, on and off the field, has been a cornerstone of the Donegal resurgence ever since Jim McGuinness took over in 2011 and there are tentative signs that it is starting to wear thin. You can ill-afford to be so lazy in the tackle when you have an opponent like McManus to punish you.
This concern - plus the ongoing injury woes of Karl Lacey and the absence of another defensive linchpin in Neil McGee - has me leaning towards a Monaghan victory, but safe in the knowledge that Donegal will still have a say in the destination of the championship come the end of the summer.