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Now go prove it again

THEY may have finished a full five points off the lightning pace set by finalists Kilkenny and Tipperary, but Dublin still qualified as one of the big success stories of the 2009 Allianz Hurling League.

Top-flight survival was all but guaranteed after just four rounds, with six points in the bag, at which point the buoyant Blues were even harbouring hopes of reaching the final itself. And even though they only garnered one more point -- to finish a mid-table fourth with seven points -- those late defeats by Tipperary and Kilkenny still carried genuine signs of progress and promise for the summer ahead.

So then, what awaits Anthony Daly as he embarks on his second campaign in the Donnycarney cockpit?

Can Dublin dare to dream of actually reaching a first league decider since 1946, even winning Division One for the first time since 1939? Should they be satisfied with another solid-as-you-go spring? Or could it be a case of 'Difficult Second Album' for Dalo as his charges get dragged into a demotion dogfight?

This year, Dublin have the traditional Big Three -- Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork -- all coming to Parnell Park. Time will tell if this constitutes a great opportunity or will actually translate into a far tougher campaign for a team hoping to emulate last year's victories over Waterford and Galway, only this time on the road.

Speaking to the Evening Herald last month, Daly said he would "love to" reach a league final before warning: "The first thing to avoid is being in relegation trouble. We'll look no further than going down to Walsh Park the first round and trying to get a win there.

"And if we lose, we'll have to reassess quickly because we'll have Tipp coming to Parnell Park the following Sunday. There's no great big targets, league or championship. It's every game."

Here's a quick look at the seven fixtures facing Dublin, highlighting where they can improve on last year and where they could be in danger of slippage.

SUN, FEB 21 - WATERFORD (A)

LAST YEAR: Dublin 0-15 Waterford 1-11 (Parnell Pk). Nine points from the metronomic stick of Alan McCrabbe, allied to a powerful comeback display from Ronan Fallon at centre-back, helped the Dubs make it three wins from four. Not even the goalkeeping heroics of Adrian Power could save the Déise.

THIS YEAR: Would gladly settle for another fraught one-point win at Walsh Park on Sunday. Waterford's home advantage is countered by a massive absentee list of 10 potential starters, with Eoin Kelly and Eoin McGrath suspended, Shane O'Sullivan and Shane Casey injured, and six more veterans -- Tony Browne, Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan, Eoin Murphy, John Mullane and Seamus Prendergast -- all handed extended time off. That offers Dublin a window of opportunity, and the critical importance of a good start won't be lost on Daly after last year's February flyer.

SUN, FEB 28 - TIPPERARY (H)

LAST YEAR: Tipp 2-19 Dublin 4-11 (Thurles). At one stage in the third quarter, leading by two points after a David O'Callaghan goal following David Treacy's earlier hat-trick, the visitors looked primed for a famous Semple Stadium scalp ... but a late salvo sealed a two-point win for Tipp.

THIS YEAR: The glass half-full says Dublin are at home so why not go one better than last March? The glass half-empty reminds you that Tipp are almost on a par with Kilkenny. Neither was at full strength in last Saturday's entertaining SH challenge; Tipp prevailed by three and will start as favourites here too.

SUN, MAR 14 - OFFALY (A)

LAST YEAR: Didn't meet. Offaly were in Division Two.

THIS YEAR: One of those watershed games that could go a long way to deciding if Dublin sink or swim. The Blues need to reassert their '09 status as chief pretenders, along with Galway, to Kilkenny's Leinster crown. But taking points from Tullamore will be no cakewalk, against an Offaly team that has already scalped the Cats (albeit a shadow Kilkenny) in the Walsh Cup.

SUN, MAR 21 - KILKENNY (H)

LAST YEAR: Kilkenny 1-23 Dublin 3-15 (Nowlan Pk). Following on from their trip to Tipp, another close-but-no-cigar defeat that could be dressed up as a moral victory. A dazzling start that included a Kevin Flynn goal, followed by a deadly brace from 'Dotsy' O'Callaghan in the fourth quarter, left the Dubs on the cusp of a famous victory ... only for Eoin Larkin's goal and two injury-time points to see the Cats limp home.

THIS YEAR: The All-Ireland club final involving Ballyhale Shamrocks takes place four days beforehand, fuelling the likelihood that Henry Shefflin, Cha Fitzpatrick et al won't be called on by Brian Cody. A welcome relief for the Dubs, but even a weakened Kilkenny represent the ultimate litmus test.

SUN, MAR 28 - CORK (H)

LAST YEAR: Dublin 4-14 Cork 1-14 (Páirc Uí Chaoimh). It's not every day that you play poorly and come away from Leeside with a nine-point win. Then again, last year's NHL opener came against Gerald McCarthy's callow youngsters who had already leaked three goals inside 16 minutes. Liam Rushe announced his arrival on the league stage with two goals during that early onslaught.

THIS YEAR: For once there is no strike tearing the People's Republic apart, so Dublin can expect to face an infinitely tougher challenge against a Cork camp that is battle-hardened, brimful with experience -- and happy with their manager!

SUN, APR 4 - GALWAY (A)

LAST YEAR: Dublin 2-21 Galway 0-15 (Parnell Pk). The Blues' most compelling performance of spring '09 comes with a giant caveat -- Galway's meek surrender, two red cards aside. The visitors were without the Portumna boys but even that doesn't justify how easily it came for Dublin, who found the net early (through Liam Ryan) and late (O'Callaghan).

THIS YEAR: A daunting prospect, for several reasons -- Galway will have home advantage and revenge on their minds, not to mention having Joe Canning & Co back from chasing club history. A slightly worrying augury came last Sunday in the Walsh Cup final when the Dubs (minus their sizeable college contingent) lost emphatically by seven points to an equally understrength Galway.

SUN, APR 18 - LIMERICK (H)

LAST YEAR: Limerick 1-11 Dublin 0-12 (Gaelic Grounds). The first league defeat of Daly's tenure, and one Dublin could easily have won but for costly mistakes at either end. Niall Moran's early second-half goal stemmed from a handling error while the visitors missed a couple of vital late frees, so an unconvincing Limerick escaped with a two-point win.

THIS YEAR: Given the current travails tearing apart Shannonside hurling, surely this qualifies as a two-point banker? Maybe so, but by mid-April Limerick may have a new manager and most of their absent old guard -- the same players who burst Dublin's championship bubble last July. Even if that scenario unfolds, however, Dublin should have a clear edge in fitness and sharpness. Ergo they still should win.


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