Galway blaze back into title contention
Galway 2-17 Clare 0-17
Galway may not have answered every question but they got enough of them right in Semple Stadium yesterday to suggest that they are well capable of sitting a tougher exam.
Tipperary will provide it in next month's semi-final but, for now, Galway can bask in the satisfaction of a job well done in very difficult circumstances.
Defeat would have closed out their season with only one win - versus Cork in the first round of the league in mid-February - against top-eight opposition, a wholly unacceptable situation for a team that reached two of the last four All-Ireland finals.
It would also have attracted further criticism over the revolt which ousted Anthony Cunningham and all the fallout which followed last year.
In short, this was a real pressure game for Galway, a day when they had to stand up and make a bold statement about themselves as a group and as individuals.
They succeeded on both fronts, raising their game to levels which Clare couldn't reach, except for a period in the second half when their courageous attempt to rein in Galway cut a 10-point deficit down to four on the hour mark.
With the wind behind them, Clare had whipped up an impressive momentum and seemed well-placed to complete the recovery. Galway's mental and physical resolve was facing a massive challenge, one which might even define their season.
The response was emphatic, as they outscored Clare by 0-4 to 0-2 on the run-in. Indeed, if it weren't for some sloppy shooting they would have taken the winning margin close to 10 points.
Instead, it settled on six, which in no way flattered Galway who were a far more coherent force for most of the way.
They led by 1-10 to 0-6 at half-time, having won many of the big individual confrontations, as well as working their calmly and systematically through the Banner puzzle.
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Clare's game is all about packing as many areas as possible and running into space in an attempt to create shooting opportunities. It's all done with high energy and relentless pressure.
It didn't work this time because Galway presented them with a range of problems which they needed to solve before trying to impose their will on proceedings.
Galway's restructured defence was outstanding, particularly in the first half. Adrian Tuohy slotted in neatly, allowing Johnny Coen to move to midfield, where his busy style complemented David Burke's more measured approach.
Galway needed to secure the defensive locks very tightly and they succeeded from the start, Daithi Burke was superb in front of goal, dealing equally effective with air and ground threats.
His solidity spread to his neighbours, leaving Clare's main strike force struggling to make any impression. They were mainly reliant on Tony Kelly's pointed frees and the excellent Colm Galvin who scored 0-5 from open play, 0-2 in the first half. Kelly's radar wasn't as reliable as it might have been as he missed two scoreable frees in the first half, whereas Joe Canning was consistently accurate at the other end.
Galway's goal came in the 15th minute when Conor Cooney squeezed home a drive which Clare goalkeeper Andrew Fahy would have been expected to save.
Galway had clearly done their homework on Clare's puck-out strategy, counteracting it quite cleverly, leaving Davy Fitzgerald (below) and his fellow plotters with plenty to figure out at the interval.
Still, Galway's seven-point advantage had been built with the aid of a stiff breeze so Clare would have expected to make steady inroads on the deficit in the third quarter.
Instead, they found themselves eight points down after 50 minutes, as Galway sorted out a problem which had frequently bedevilled them in the past.
They have often struggled in the early stages of second halves, a malaise which was in evidence only a three weeks earlier when Kilkenny overpowered them in the Leinster final but it was very different yesterday.
They made a decisive break right from the throw-in, with Johnny Coen surging forward, unloading to David Burke, who spotted Canning to his right. The pass was crisp and accurate and the finish even better as Canning whipped the ball to the Clare net.
That may well have been the winning of the game for Galway as it provided them with a comfortable cushion while also hoisting new barriers which Clare would have to negotiate if they were to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 2013.
There was nothing wrong with Clare's work rate but it still took them quite some time to power up to the momentum levels required to really trouble Galway.
Their scored only four points in the opening 15 minutes of the second half as the Galway defence continued to dominate. And any time they wobbled, goalkeeper Colm Callanan came to their rescue with a repeat of the performance levels that won him an All-Star award last year.
Clare's best period came between the 51st and 60th minutes when they scored 0-5, a run broken only once when sub Cyril Donnellan scored a Galway point, which needed the approval of Hawk-Eye before being awarded.
At 2-13 to 0-15 in the 60th minute, the next few scores were crucial and, as it happened, they went to Galway, with Cathal Mannion and Canning (free) adding points.
Clare were forced into a desperate search for goals in an effort to save the day but Kelly's drive from a free in the 68th minute was blocked, while Callanan made another good save too. All of which left Clare without a goal, similar to their games against Waterford in the Munster semi-final and Limerick in the previous week's qualifiers.
It's very difficult to win games off points only but Clare's set-up is not conducive to getting into goal-scoring territory very often.
The league semi-final in April, when they scored four goals, was an exception which probably had as much to do with that rarest of events - an implosion in the Kilkenny defence.
And so ends a strange season for Clare. Winning the league for the first time since 1978 and going through the entire year with only two defeats looks good in theory but the reality is that for a third successive season they made no impression on the Munster Championship and failed to reach the last four in the All-Ireland race.
That wasn't their anticipated story when they won the 2013 All-Ireland with a squad whose average age was 23 years but, unfortunately for them, they have not revisited those heights, which has to be a major worry.
Meanwhile, Galway are back on the All-Ireland track, having responded in the best way possible to the Leinster final disappointment.
Scorers - Galway: J Canning 1-8 (6f, 2 '65), C Cooney 1-0, J Cooney, David Burke 0-2 each, J Coen, A Harte, P Mannion, C Mannion, C Donnellan 0-1 each.
Clare: T Kelly 0-7 (6f), C Galvin 0-5, C McGrath, C Ryan (2f), 0-2 each, D McInerney 0-1.
Galway - C Callanan; A Tuohy, Daithi Burke, J Hanbury; G McInerney, P Mannion, A Harte; J Coen, David Burke; J Flynn, J Cooney, C Cooney; C Mannion, J Canning, C Whelan.
Subs: C Donnellan for C Cooney (47), D Glennon for Flynn (53), F Moore for Coen (60), A Smith for Whelan (66), S Maloney for J Cooney (73).
Clare - A Fahy; O O'Brien, C Dillon, P O'Connor; B Bugler, D McInerney, J Browne; C Galvin, D Reidy; C Cleary, T Kelly, J Conlon; P Collins, S O'Donnell, A Shanagher. Subs: D Fitzgerald for Bugler (41), C McGrath for Collins (49), A Cunningham for Shanagher , C Ryan (7) for Reidy (54)
Ref - B Gavin (Offaly)