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Mayo hope that wheels come off as Dubs wobble

SIX months on from the All-Ireland final, Dublin and Mayo return to the Croke Park scene of that strange September showdown.

The final had been billed in advance as a mouth-watering collision of free-scoring outfits; come the big day we had to settle for plenty of actual collisions and concussions instead.

Not that Dublin were complaining, and the deserving winners got to pen the history of 2013 while the only prize heading west was the National Newspapers of Ireland annual award for best headline, courtesy of the Western People: Deja Voodoo.

This Saturday night, our two protagonists renew HQ battle with their league campaigns balanced on something of a knife-edge.

Both counties boast six points from five games, but there's a stark difference in how they've accumulated them: Dublin won their first two outings whereas Mayo lost them both. Since March arrived, though, the reigning league and All-Ireland champions have suffered the first notable blip of Jim Gavin's reign, losing two from three, whereas James Horan's men have belatedly caught fire, winning three on the spin.

So we arrive at this weekend's watershed juncture. Given how the table currently reads and considering who plays who in the final two rounds, there is a distinct possibility that one of our All-Ireland finalists won't make the semi-final cut-off.

As matters stand, they are inseparable on points (six) and scoring difference (plus seven), but Mayo shade the battle for fourth having scored more. Here's the key: Will the losers recover sufficiently to leapfrog one of Cork, Derry, Tyrone (or maybe even Kerry) on the last day? It could well be a big ask, especially if Dublin must travel to Omagh still stuck on six points.

That said, and despite the clear correlation between spring progress and September success, it is NOT imperative that Dublin reach a league semi-final. Their immediate prospects have been hindered by several high-profile absentees – Rory O'Carroll, Diarmuid Connolly, Bernard Brogan for the first five rounds, Paul Flynn for the most part – while some of their marquee U21s have been used sparingly. Thus, sweeping judgements right now are best avoided.

Besides, at different times (late on against Kerry, during their opening blitzkrieg of Cork, for sustained periods against Kildare) Dublin have been blindingly good. Their pace and directness, especially on the counter, tends to leave most rivals gasping for air.

But? Well, they still aren't playing with the same fluency of 12 months ago. This is understandable when you consider (a) aforementioned absentees and (b) they're coming off the back of an All-Ireland win ... but this league has still thrown up several niggling concerns.


The biggest one is how they would cope if O'Carroll was struck down by injury when it really matters. The Kilmacud powerhouse is the glue that binds that Dublin full-back line together but in their last three outings, against Cork, Kildare and especially Derry (arguably the worst collective display under Gavin), Dublin's inside defensive line has been shredded too easily.

With Kevin O'Brien out for the season, Philly McMahon suspended this weekend and Seán George's senior readiness open to question, this is one sector where Dublin's so-called glut of options is less than apparent.

Overall, this Saturday is a significant contest for both Dublin and Mayo, partly in terms of the result, more so in terms of summer pointers. It will be almost two years to the day since Dublin, then, as now, All-Ireland holders, travelled west for a league refixture in Castlebar and lost by 0-20 to 0-8. It was a car-crash performance and Pat Gilroy didn't mince his words afterwards.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it was also the most telling league sign that Dublin circa 2012 didn't have the intensity or consistency to defend Sam. Five months later, in a madcap All-Ireland semi, Mayo proved it.