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Summertime to bring real tests for the Sky Blues

ONCE upon a time, when it was "only the league", it was almost a badge of honour for All-Ireland contenders to avoid the knockout stages in spring. Best not to show your hand too early, and all that.

The more ambitious con artists might even get embroiled in a relegation dogfight, fuelling loose talk that "they're finished" ... only for, hey presto, a terrible beauty to be reborn come the Championship.

For much of this millennium, however, the correlation between spring progress and summer success has been firmly established. That's one of the reasons why Dublin's All-Ireland odds have narrowed to a scarcely believable evens in the wake of Sunday's latest Croke Park coronation.

Here's another – the faltering form graphs of their nearest rivals.

The most recent weekends of elite Allianz League action at HQ – the semi-finals and last Sunday's Division 1 and 2 finals – have told us plenty about Dublin's awesome weaponry, but equally as much about the weaknesses inherent in Cork, Mayo, Donegal and Derry.

Our own suspicion all along was that Derry won't be viable contenders for Sam Maguire and Sunday's 15-point capitulation underlined that belief.

But what of the rest? The rudderless manner in which Cork wilted in the face of Dublin's second half blitzkrieg two weeks ago suggested that Brian Cuthbert's evolving team, for all its attacking prowess, isn't quite ready.

On the same day, Mayo's performance against 14-man Derry raised myriad awkward questions about the team's wherewithal to go back to the All-Ireland well. They looked mentally jaded. The old psychological bugbear of blowing big matches in Croke Park won't go away. Most worrying of all, the quality/depth of forward options remains miles off the stellar Sky Blue benchmark, and James Horan doesn't appear to have unearthed any major new talents who might correct that imbalance.

Mayo's one big hope? They've made a habit under Horan of ending leagues on a Croker low, only to transmogrify back into a serious Championship beast.

There has been a body of opinion throughout spring that Donegal could be the dark horse bet to reemerge as chief rivals to Dublin's crown. The unhappy memories of blowing up in defence of Sam had been rinsed from the system; surely this year they'd be refocused, fighting fit and coming armed with another audacious master plan, copyright Jim McGuinness?

If so, then aforementioned cunning plan obviously entailed Donegal looking as flat as a pancake for Sunday's Division 2 final against Monaghan.

Indeed, if you were to judge the league knockout stages in isolation, the only obvious conclusion is that Monaghan are the team currently best equipped to challenge the Dublin behemoth.

Enough to go all the way, though? It would represent a leap of faith to see Monaghan still bombing on in September. The bookies have them priced at 20/1 and they usually aren't that far off the money.

In summary, when you consider some of the proven winners (Ger Brennan) and gifted U21 young guns (Messrs McCaffrey, Mannion, Costello, Lowndes etc) who weren't available to Jim Gavin on Sunday, it's blindingly obvious that Dublin possess a luxury of options.

However, while these are glorious times to be a Dublin footballer or diehard fan, there are no Championship certainties (beyond, perhaps, another Leinster title cruise). Two in a row remains a dastardly difficult conundrum. One of the above-mentioned challengers – or maybe Tyrone, or Kerry – will get on a summer roll, momentum will build, confidence soar, and they won't meekly submit as Derry did.

Then we'll know if Dublin are different to all those recent champions who couldn't sustain the pace. We suspect they are.