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Donegal set to kill off depleted Mournemen

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18 June 2013; Down's Mark Poland, left, and Donegal's Leo McLoone in attendance at an Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final media event. Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

18 June 2013; Down's Mark Poland, left, and Donegal's Leo McLoone in attendance at an Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final media event. Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

18 June 2013; Down's Mark Poland, left, and Donegal's Leo McLoone in attendance at an Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final media event. Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

THERE are several potential PR ways to summarise this year's opening Ulster football semi-final. A battle of attrition between two rivals who suffered the same relegation fate last spring? Correct, strictly speaking.

A rematch of last year's Ulster decider? True again, although no prizes for stating the bleedin' obvious.

A showdown between two rivals who have both hit the championship ground running this summer, via impressive day-one victories? Bang on.

A potential banana skin for the defending All-Ireland champions? Hmmm, now we're entering the realms of conjecture.

It definitely is true to say that if all the best Down footballers in the world were (a) currently living in Ireland, (b) playing Gaelic football as opposed to chasing some other oval-shaped object and (c) injury-free, then they would definitely have a fighting chance of ending Jim McGuinness's incredible record of nine consecutive wins on the Ulster SFC circuit.

But Down cannot tick all the above boxes, not by a long stretch. The team that takes the field in Cavan tomorrow will be, to a large extent, unrecognisable from the one that stormed through the 'back door' to reach the 2010 All-Ireland final.

A roll call of the missing-in-action includes Martin Clarke and Caolan Mooney (both contracted to Collingwood in the AFL); Peter Fitzpatrick (also in Australia); Paul McComiskey, Arthur McConville and Darren O'Hagan (jetted out to the USA after the league); Damien Rafferty (forced by injury to call time on his inter-county career last year); Danny Hughes, Dan Gordon, Conor Garvey and Aidan Carr (all sidelined through long-term injury, although Hughes and Carr have resumed training in recent weeks).

In these straitened circumstances, you can see why McCartan's predecessor as manager, Ross Carr, has been praising his former team-mate for managing to keep Down so competitive.

 

ABSENTEES

"From the start of 2012 he has been spinning plates," Carr remarked this week, suggesting that up to 10 of the absentees would make the starting team if they were available.

Instead, McCartan must plot Donegal's downfall with constricted resources and he has announced the same starting team that overcame Derry in pulsating fashion three weeks ago – with the obvious caveats that apply to all such announcements in the era of the 'dummy' team.

Donegal, meanwhile, have made one alteration to the team that eventually squeezed the life out of Tyrone. The holders are not without their own injury issues – they must plan without two current All Stars in Karl Lacey (who doubles as Footballer of the Year) and Neil Gallagher – but their absence is partly compensated for by the starting return of Mark McHugh.

Much has been made of the fact that Donegal can't match some of their chief All-Ireland rivals in the strength-in-depth stakes – McGuinness himself conceded this week that there was "probably a grain of truth" in this assessment.

Yet various injury problems didn't derail them last year and the same applied against a Tyrone side fancied by several pundits to spring a Ballybofey ambush.

As it transpired, Tyrone didn't lack for either possession (especially off Donegal's kickout) or territory or chances ... but a wide count of 13 with four more efforts dropped short proved psychologically crippling.

Donegal, as is their wont, were shrewder in their shot selection, more economical in their execution and also more ruthless in going for the jugular – cue a cleverly crafted goal in each half.

In the end it was relatively routine. The last few minutes in Celtic Park were similar for Down, whose stunning second half delivered a nine-point turnaround and five-point victory over a fading Derry.

 

REFRESHING

And yet you shouldn't be entirely blinded by the brilliance of the long-range point scoring from both sides. Yes, it was a refreshing throwback to the type of gung-ho football we are seeing less and less of these days, while the variety of Down's attacking threat and their sharpness in sniffing out a goal chance caught the eye.

But? Well, it's a truism that those same forwards (or Kevin McKernan, for that matter, marauding from midfield) won't be afforded anything like the same time or space by Donegal's suffocating blanket.

At the other end, too, Down cannot afford anything like the defensive laxness that saw Eoin Bradley run amok before the break – despite, bizarrely, being double-teamed by two defenders.

In fairness, the Mourne camp are acutely aware of this issue (midfielder Kalum King has admitted they "cannot afford" to concede another 1-15 against Donegal) but their relative dearth of bench options won't help.

In summary, All-Ireland champions are often at their most vulnerable when least expected – check out the 1/5 odds below – but it's a leap of faith too far to believe that day has arrived.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Donegal 1/5, Draw 10/1, Down 5/1

VERDICT: Donegal


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