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Mayo can edge out Kingdom

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Mayo manager James Horan during a press evening ahead of their Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final against Galway on Sunday the 13th of July. Mayo Football Squad Press Evening, Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Picture;: David Maher/Sportsfile.

Mayo manager James Horan during a press evening ahead of their Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final against Galway on Sunday the 13th of July. Mayo Football Squad Press Evening, Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Picture;: David Maher/Sportsfile.

Mayo manager James Horan during a press evening ahead of their Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Final against Galway on Sunday the 13th of July. Mayo Football Squad Press Evening, Elverys MacHale Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Picture;: David Maher/Sportsfile.

WHEN sitting down to evaluate the chances of both Mayo and Kerry this weekend, when you strip away all the statistics, individual talent and tactical game-plans, it comes down to the most important factor of all. Do Mayo believe they can beat Kerry this weekend?

This game is a massive test of their mental state following the setbacks over the last three years.

Having thought about this game for the last three weeks I originally would have been of the opinion that Mayo were probably the team best positioned to make this year's All-Ireland decider. It is a thought though that comes with some concern and question marks that are currently hanging over the men from the west.

I have felt strongly, having watched this team perform over the last few years, that they have the athletic power combined with the hunger and desire that is required to be All-Ireland champions. They have been prepared 'professionally' by James Horan and after three years playing collectively within an organised team structure they have delivered consistently on the road to reach the last two All-Ireland finals.

However, following the setbacks of defeat at the final hurdle, all that mental baggage and pressure once again rests on the shoulders of this Mayo team. This aspect of their preparation is the single most important factor for them in terms of winning Sunday's duel.

FEAR

Kerry do not fear Mayo but it is questionable whether Mayo might fear Kerry.

The Kingdom have haunted the men from the west for many years and you have to go back to 1996 for Mayo's last championship win. Heavy defeats in the 2004 and 2006 All-Ireland deciders was backed up by a nine-point defeat only three years ago in the 2011 All-Ireland semi-final.

We have waited for a couple of years now for this Kerry team to drop their guard but there are no evident signs of them waning just yet.

Despite the loss of key players like Tomás ó Sé, Paul Galvin and the injured Colm Cooper, Eamon Fitzmaurice must be commended for the performances of his team to date combined with the emergence of some good young talent when many thought the well had dried up.

Whilst Fitzmaurice is still learning more about his players, Horan maybe knows his players too well and is blinded by loyalty at times.

The biggest question mark hanging over Mayo is whether their performances have flattened out this year? Have they learnt lessons from the last two years and are they a better side in 2014? To date this year, it is hard to point to any areas of significant improvement.

Whilst many feel they are training to peak for this time of year, I do not necessarily buy into that argument. Managers prepare teams to perform at the highest level right throughout the championship and it's at the latter stages where tactics, key match-ups and game-plans effectively decide the outcome of big games.

It is not as simple as training to peak in August or September. A team peaking at the right time is basically a hindsight cliché that is thrown out after a big win or loss.

Looking at their performances to date this year, there are a few worrying aspects for Mayo ahead of Sunday's game.

SERIOUS

Their full-back line was taken to the cleaners in the Cork match and it will be a serious area of concern on Sunday when facing arguably the best footballer in the country at the present time, James O'Donoghue.

To compound matters for Mayo (excluding their exhibition game against New York) they are conceding an average of 16 points a game this summer compared to an average of 11/12 points at this stage in their last two All-Ireland campaigns.

Throw into the equation also that they conceded more goals (14 in their seven regulation games and two more in their semi-final loss to Derry) than any team in the country during this year's Allianz League combined with the fact that Kerry have an average scoring of 20 points per game during Fitzmaurice's tenure.

We all know Horan has a very settled team at his disposal and in year four of his reign it is unlikely that he will make radical changes to his team.

However, looking a bit closer at his defence, it may be a case that he has no Plan B.

Of the 16 substitutes Horan has made over the last three games, only two involved changes to his back six players (and one of them was in the last minute of a game).

This points to a lack of options for in his defence and leaves Mayo exposed once again to conceding goals in big games at crucial stages.

I expect that Keith Higgins will be given the task of tracking O'Donoghue and if Mayo are to win they cannot afford to give the Legion man and Paul Geaney space in Kerry's full-forward line.

Whilst Kerry have looked impressive to date, I question whether they have received a real test of their character or ability this summer. Cork rolled over for them and Galway were naive in their approach and as a result never really asking any questions of the Kingdom.

The battle of the middle eight will be crucial in giving the winning side a platform and Mayo need to get a stranglehold in this sector to cut off the Kerry supply line.

This a difficult game in which to call a winner and it could prove to be the game of the year in the 2014 championship.

Kerry I feel have the know-how to win big games and are probably a mentally stronger side who are never easily beaten. Fitzmaurice will have studied Mayo in detail and will bring specific a game-plan to target the strengths of Mayo.

However, I cannot get away from the raw hunger and desire that Mayo will bring and that could be the catalyst for a narrow victory.

I expect a massive performance because it will be needed in every facet of their game if they are to topple the Kingdom.

Therefore, a very hesitant vote goes to Mayo if they get their defence in order!


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