Sunday 11 December 2016

Defensive battle ahead for old foes Donegal and Monaghan

Published 24/06/2016 | 11:07

Ryan McHugh, Donegal, in action against Dermot Malone, Monaghan. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan
Ryan McHugh, Donegal, in action against Dermot Malone, Monaghan. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan

When it comes to Ulster finals these days it’s hard not to think of Donegal and Monaghan and how they have dominated.

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Donegal won in 2011, 2012 and 2014 and Monaghan took the crown in 2013 and 2015.

In fact, Donegal are bidding to reach the Ulster final for the sixth successive year and Monaghan are looking to make it four finals in a row.

The last time they met in an Ulster final was last year, in what was a very tense affair. At half-time Monaghan were 0-8 to 0-4 ahead but Donegal rallied. At the final whistle only a point separated the sides and it was Monaghan who were celebrating a 0-11 to 0-10 win.

Donegal manager Rory Gallagher
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher

Their most recent encounter was only a few months ago, a League clash in Castleblayney. Monaghan needed a late stoppage time point from Colin Walshe to win the game and keep them in Division 1. Donegal were ahead 1-4 to 0-0 after 20 minutes but Monaghan bounced back to secure the dramatic win.

There’s always good competition between the sides but that doesn’t mean the best football is played. Of course there will be a defensive element to this game, and the numbers are testament to this. The last four championship games between the two sides produced only one goal. It was scored by Monaghan in the 2014 Ulster final which they lost 0-15 to 1-09.

Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke
Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke

The battle on the side-line between Malachy O’Rourke and Rory Gallagher will again be the main topic of discussion in the run up to tomorrow’s game. They are two of the most tactically minded men in Gaelic football and how they set out their stall should make for fascinating viewing.

It’s expected that both teams will set up with at least 12 players behind the ball and that it will become a battle of wills, but it’s the transition from defence to attack where we will see Gallagher’s influence, with Donegal pushing more men forward than they did 12 months ago.

However, Donegal’s Michael Murphy can be tied down and indeed limited behind such a blanket so he will more than likely come out the field. He’s had some tough battles with Monaghan’s Vinny Corey, who has kept his influence to the minimum in the last few contests between the sides, and acquaintances should be renewed.

In the past Monaghan have targeted the Donegal full-back line by positioning either of the Hughes brothers at the edge of the square and then directed long quick ball inside. The absence of the suspended Neil McGee will add to Donegal’s problems in this sector.

Neil Gallagher, Donegal. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan
Neil Gallagher, Donegal. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan

Monaghan have won two of the last three championship games between the sides but Rory Gallagher’s introduction of fresh faces in Eoin McHugh and versatile half Marty O’Reilly in the half-back line will go a long way to altering this statistic. Both played as half-forwards throughout the league but their injection of speed has added new impetus to the Donegal counter attacking game.

There is no denying that the Ulster championship is the home of tough and tasty encounters and already these two teams have dipped their toes in. However neither side have been tested to great effect. Monaghan defeated Down 2-22 to 0-9 points in their Ulster quarter-final and Donegal beat Fermanagh 2-12 to 0-11 in theirs.

The Conor McManus factor for Monaghan is not to be under-estimated. Interestingly he started out as a wing-back and a wing-forward for the county before finding a permanent home in the full-forward line.

He’s played every minute of League and championship for Monaghan this year and is the top scorer in Division 1 of the League with 2-43. And McManus has no problem converting when playing the top teams in the country. In February against Dublin he scored 12 points, nine from frees, and against Mayo he racked up 1-8.

Martin McElhinney, Donegal, in action against Kieran Duffy, left, and Owen Lennon, Monaghan. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan
Martin McElhinney, Donegal, in action against Kieran Duffy, left, and Owen Lennon, Monaghan. Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final, Donegal v Monaghan

They have been boosted by the form of Walshe who is back from a cruciate ligament injury and has brought more steel to Monaghan’s backline. He’s a vital player for them.

The prize for the winners is an Ulster final against Tyrone or Cavan and for the losers a journey in the qualifiers awaits. It’s going to be a tight affair, that’s for sure, but Donegal should edge it.

Don’t miss the Ulster GAA Football Championship Semi-Final when Donegal face Monaghan this Saturday live only on Sky Sports 2 at 6:15pm

 

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