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Mayo to edge home by hook or by crook

THE notion of Mayo as favourites in a two-horse race involving the thoroughbreds from Kerry will strike GAA historians as more than a little strange. Borderline bizarre, even.

The record books weigh so heavily in favour of the green-and-gold - 36 senior All-Irelands versus three - that it begs the obvious question, what innate quality do Kerry footballers possess that is seemingly missing from their Mayo counterparts? The championship head-to-head between these counties - 17 Kerry wins, four for Mayo and two draws - offers further confirmation of this lopsided relationship.

Moreover, whereas Mayo have a relatively recent penchant for turning over the Dubs in Croke Park, they have no such positive memories of Kerry.

Back in 1996, John Maughan's marauders turned over Páidí Ó Sé's fancied Munster champions but Kerry have been making up for that mishap ever since: the Maurice Fitz All-Ireland final of '97; the twin All-Ireland maulings of '04 and '06, sandwiching a closer-run quarter-final in '05; and finally, three years ago, another semi-final that was fiercely contested for over half the game before Kerry disappeared over the horizon to win by nine points.

HANDBRAKE

The cumulative margin from those last five games is 36 points. Enough to make you Mayo optimists pull the handbrake en route to the bookies?

Well, maybe not. James Horan and his resilient squad have been through the emotional wringer and keep coming back for more. They have come a considerable distance since 2011 whereas Kerry have lost several more icons from one of the greatest teams in football history.

Mayo are seasoned; Kerry a more transitional mix of proven All-Ireland winners and September wannabes. The balance of Eamonn Fitzmaurice's first 15 has been tilted even more firmly in favour of youth following Thursday night's recalls for Peter Crowley, David Moran and Stephen O'Brien at the expense of three decorated campaigners in Killian Young, Bryan Sheehan and Declan O'Sullivan.

Now, since Sheehan was forced off in the opening minutes of the Galway quarter-final and given reports of ongoing knee trouble for O'Sullivan, it's reasonable to speculate that injury issues have played a role in Fitzmaurice's pre-match thinking. Maybe he has concluded that younger legs are required from the start to cope with Mayo's renowned power and athleticism around the middle-third ... and then he can start emptying a bench laden down with Celtic Crosses, in the hope that Young, Sheehan, Declan and Darran O'Sullivan (maybe even the peripheral Kieran Donaghy) can propel Kerry over the line.

In truth, Kerry have been led to this penultimate stage by a new cutting-edge generation, with Paul Geaney and more especially James O'Donoghue (on current form, Footballer of the Year-elect) leading by prolific example.

Thus far, they almost haven't missed the Gooch but tomorrow is a day when Colm Cooper's season-long absence might finally come back to haunt them: his plundering record against Mayo is the stuff of green-and-red nightmares.

Other potential problems for Kerry? Have they been properly road-tested by Cork and Galway? Answer no. Is their defence up to All-Ireland standard? Debatable, and the ease with which Galway's Thomas Flynn galloped from midfield for his goal must be a worry.

TACTICIAN

Fitzmaurice, though, is a shrewd tactician who will thought long and hard about his match-ups. For James Horan, too, the match-ups will be key, and all the speculation out west is that Tom Cunniffe will be handed the pivotal man-marking job on O'Donoghue.

Even after yesterday's announcement of an unchanged team, rumours persist of call-ups for Jason Gibbons at midfield (Donal Vaughan relocating to defence) and Alan Freeman at full-forward, with Christ Barrett and skipper Andy Moran perceived to be under threat. Countering that theory, Horan is conservative with his selections and isn't known for 'dummy' teams, albeit there was one late change against Cork.

That oscillating quarter-final showcased plenty of what makes Mayo such a formidable force but also some of the bad. They must stick to the plan for longer and execute it more accurately; otherwise Kerry have the players to pounce.

For Mayo, though, the sense of "now or never" has never been so acute. September beckons, by hook or by crook.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Mayo 10/11, Draw 8/1, Kerry 6/5

VERDICT: Mayo

MAYO: R Hennelly; C Barrett, G Cafferkey, K Higgins; L Keegan, T Cunniffe, C Boyle; D Vaughan, S O'Shea; K McLoughlin, A O'Shea, J Doherty; C O'Connor, A Moran, A Dillon.

KERRY: B Kelly; M Ó Sé​​​, A O'Mahony, S Enright; P Murphy, P Crowley, F Fitzgerald; A Maher, D Moran; M Geaney, J Buckley, D Walsh; S O'Brien, P Geaney, J O'Donoghue.


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