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Dubs get the verdict

STRAIGHT knockout battles between evenly matched teams can be a previewer's curse at the best of times. And these aren't the best of times when it comes to second-guessing what Dublin and Tyrone will bring to the Croke Park stage tonight.

To put it bluntly, this is a nightmare match to predict and that explains the massive level of anticipation it has generated. In a generally depressed summer for GAA attendances, we're likely to see the 60,000 barrier breached for the first time in 2011.

Most supporters, partisan or otherwise, will converge on the Jones's Road with a bundle of conflicting thoughts, not fully knowing that to expect.

Are Tyrone embarking on one of those familiar Croke Park rolls or are they still, in an All-Ireland context, essentially past it? If you think that's a difficult conundrum, then try figuring out where Dublin are this evening.

They haven't played for a month, and even that scarily erratic performance against Wexford prompted far more questions than answers. Are they operating at the same high-octane level that saw them burst past Tyrone (with a late scoring burst) en route to last year's All-Ireland semi-final?

The public evidence suggests they aren't but, speaking yesterday, Pat Gilroy was happy to talk up the intensity of the internal practice games they have played over the last three weekends since the Leinster final.

"Is it the same as championship? Well, when you look at the statistics of the games, it was up at that level," Gilroy declared.

"The fellas who are not starting here made life very, very difficult over the past three weeks, and I think that will stand to us."

However, the above statement is hard to square with management's inclusion of Eoghan O'Gara, who hasn't played in any of those internal games because of a broken wrist shipped against Wexford.

If this were Bernard Brogan, who had just had a cast removed the previous Wednesday, you might surmise that this was a gamble worth taking.

But while O'Gara has real nuisance value with his abrasive style and direct running and eye for a goal (as Tyrone know too well) he is no Bernard Brogan and he was already struggling for form prior to suffering the above injury.

Gilroy has already hinted that O'Gara may not actually start, pointing to a late fitness test before tonight's 7pm throw-in. Our own suspicion is that he won't and that Barry Cahill will be promoted to the starting mix -- either at half-forward or as an auxiliary midfield presence aimed at curtailing the towering influence of Seán Cavanagh charging through the middle.

Cahill may start and so, too, may Michael Darragh Macauley; but we'll only know in the minutes before throw-in. By the same token, don't be surprised if Mickey Harte pulls one or two selection rabbits from the hat. It's both in his nature and the nature of the modern game.

Gilroy argues, with some justification, that he isn't overly concerned about Tyrone's actual line-up, saying: "I don't think it matters who they play, they're playing a certain way and they all seem to fall into that system."

The impression may be that Tyrone have a clear edge in terms of momentum but Dublin have several advantages too, worth relating.

For the most part this season, they've been performing at a higher level than their northern rivals -- especially in league, less obviously in championship.

They are younger and presumably hungrier too, given the yawning All-Ireland gap stretching back to 1995. If Dublin bring their ultra-intensive A-game to Croker, will Tyrone have the legs or the willpower to match it? Consider how vulnerable their full-back line appeared during the first half of last Saturday's qualifier -- largely because their middle-eight weren't putting the squeeze on Roscommon's foot-passers outfield.

Would the Rossies have been afforded such freedom during Tyrone's swarm defence pomp? No way. On the flip side, could it possibly be that Harte's men were holding something back? Another riddle wrapped inside an enigma.

Justin McMahon's defensive recall is a positive for Tyrone, but their ageing rearguard can expect a serious examination this evening.

Bernard Brogan has a point to prove post-Wexford and we suspect he won't be found wanting; if his brother Alan maintains his All Star form of June/July, the Dubs could be halfway to the semi-final.

To get over the finishing line, however, Diarmuid Connolly may have to rediscover his spring sparkle when he was the Dubs top-scorer, hitting 4-11 (all from play) during their league campaign. Did we mention the words riddle and enigma?

There are several reasons -- some based on logic, others on historic precedent -- to believe another summer of Sky Blue hope will end in August recrimination this evening.



CANNIEST

Tyrone retain a core of proven performers possessing an All-Ireland ring-craft that Dublin have patently lacked throughout the past decade. Plus they have Mickey Harte, the canniest of them all, on the line.

They have motivation aplenty after losing to the Dubs in a flurry of wides last summer. When these counties collide at the last-eight stage (2005, '08 and last year) the back door team invariably prevails -- guess who fills that role this evening?

For all that, however, we're keeping faith with the young contender -- just about. This is a defining game for Dublin and Gilroy, one they can't afford to lose.

ODDS: Dublin 5/6, Draw 7/1, Tyrone 11/8

VERDICT: Dublin


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