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Red Hand poised to prolong Farney famine

PUNTERS heading for Croke Park or McHale Park may beg to differ, but the most eagerly awaited and significant football match of the entire weekend takes place at St Tiernach's Park instead.

Not because it's the Ulster final, per se, but rather because both teams currently deserve to be rated among the country's top four.

That perception may have altered for at least one of the participants by half past three tomorrow; such is the unforgiving nature of the championship beast.

As of now, pre-throw-in, Tyrone remain among the big three of most likely All-Ireland winners (marginally behind Kerry and Cork). Yet there remains the very real prospect that the Anglo-Celt Cup will be snatched from their grasp by a group of Farney men whose summer form has been more eye-catching and who are possessed by thoughts of ending a 22-year provincial famine.

Thus far in Ulster, Tyrone have been masters at doing just enough: their performance against Antrim regressed somewhat in the second half when victory was virtually sealed while, against Down, they recovered impressively from a very porous start.

Firstly, the likes of Brian Dooher, Sean Cavanagh and Joe McMahon kicked inspirational points from distance. Then, after the break, they closed up shop like the Tyrone of old.

The only caveat: they didn't kill off the tie and then coughed up a late goal chance that, if scored, would have left them vulnerable.

Mickey Harte has made four changes, three in defence and one enforced up front, where Stephen O'Neill's absence offers further hope to the challengers. Monaghan's own prolific form against Armagh (1-18) and Fermanagh (0-21) suggests that Paul Finlay, Tommy Freeman and Conor McManus can propel Banty's men to glory. It's an old cliché but no side is probably more deserving of a provincial title ... but you don't always get what you deserve.

ODDS: Monaghan 5/4, Draw 15/2, Tyrone 5/6

VERDICT: Tyrone by one

TYRONE: P McConnell; C McCarron, Justin McMahon, R McMenamin; C Gormley, P Jordan; C Cavanagh, K Hughes; B Dooher, S Cavanagh, Joe McMahon; M Penrose, T McGuigan, O Mulligan.

MONAGHAN: D Hughes; D McArdle, JP Money, C Walshe; D Freeman, V Corey, G McQuaid; D Clerkin, O Lennon; S Gollogly, P Finlay, K Hughes; C Hanratty, C McManus, T Freeman.