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rebels can be quelled

IF you exclude the pre-season preamble that is the O'Byrne Cup, Jim Gavin's high-flying tenure in the Sky Blue cockpit started with a soaraway six-point win over Cork 13 months ago.

Tonight these same counties renew league battle – only this time the Gavin era is firmly established, with the trophies to prove it and we are embarking on a whole new ball game for the Rebels.

The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. Cork return to the Capital with a new manager in Brian Cuthbert preaching a different style – more of the boot, less of the brawn and barnstorming runners – being implemented by a much-altered team. But they are also boasting a 100 per cent record after two rounds of the Allianz League.

The same applies to Dublin, who have avoided the historic tendency for All-Ireland holders to hit the February ground crawling and so something must give at GAA headquarters this evening.

MIXED

Dublin's form has been a mixed bag thus far; they chiselled out day-one victory in the face of an early Kerry blitzkrieg and subsequent 14-man adversity, while their four-point win in Westmeath masked what had been a curious curate's egg of a performance. Yet when it mattered each day, in the fourth quarter, the resolve that underpinned Dublin's league and All-Ireland triumphs last year rose to the surface.

Cork have been marginally more impressive, albeit they laboured in the first half against Westmeath before blitzing them in the third quarter, while they should have beaten Kildare by considerably more than the misleading one-point margin suggests.

Here's the rub; traditionally, Cork are borderline unbeatable in home league combat, but tonight is their first road trip and they are facing a Sky Blue collective that generally revels in Croke Park. Between league and championship, they had 13 HQ outings last season and lost just one of them – to Tyrone last March.

This year, clearly, Dublin aren't as advanced as they were 12 months ago. This may be an inevitable consequence of winning Sam, but legacy injuries and St Vincent's All-Ireland run has also reduced Gavin's attacking arsenal.

This time last year, for example, Bernard Brogan and Paddy Andrews were both shooting the lights out; neither has resurfaced yet as they battle back from groin injuries. The half-forward line, meanwhile, is missing Diarmuid Connolly's abundant gifts.

In their absence, the three inside forwards who started against Westmeath managed just 0-1 from and the scorer – Kevin McManamon – is the only survivor, according to Gavin's Thursday night team announcement.

We have our doubts as to whether Ciarán Reddin, utilised thus far on the wing, will start at full-forward, whereas tonight is another welcome opportunity for Cormac Costello to showcase his dynamic talents.

Cork would probably fancy their chances more if skipper Michael Shields (inset) was fit and primed to stifle Costello & Co; in his absence, there will be a big onus on Eoin Cadogan to lead a new-look full-back line.

Still, you cannot discount the visitors' early league promise or their traditional spring prowess. Cork under Conor Counihan were a beast of a team to beat, reflected in a stunning record of achievement during his middle-four years; a Division Two title in 2009, followed by a hat-trick of top-flight triumphs from 2010 to '12. It was only in Counihan's last campaign – when league baubles were low on the priority list – that their record tapered off and they failed to reach the Division One semi-finals.

With so many big, powerful men skipping off to the inter-county retirement home – six in all – it was inevitable that Cuthbert would look to change the game plan. The next generation don't carry the same physical presence as the imposing heroes who have departed, but they know how to play ball.

Cork are now looking to move it faster to their inside men. Transference by boot is the favoured modus operandi. You won't see as many Cork colossi soloing through the middle en route to goal, partly because Pearse O'Neill is among the six retirees ... not that we expect this facet to completely disappear, given Aidan Walsh's penchant for such surging incursions.

Walsh struck a swashbuckling early goal in last year's corresponding fixture, ultimately to no avail. If the hosts can subdue his marauding influence, they should take the points again.

ODDS: Dublin 1/2,

Draw 15/2, Cork 2/1

VERDICT: Dublin


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