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7 April 2013; Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Donegal v Dublin, Páirc MacCumhaill, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

7 April 2013; Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Donegal v Dublin, Páirc MacCumhaill, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

7 April 2013; Donegal manager Jim McGuinness. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Donegal v Dublin, Páirc MacCumhaill, Ballybofey, Co. Donegal. Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

DONEGAL v TYRONE

(Ballybofey, Tomorrow 4.0, Live RTE2/BBC2 NI)

FOR all their staggering progression over the previous two seasons, it's worth remembering one thing about Donegal under Jim McGuinness. They may have had Tyrone's number in summer combat, but it has rarely been routine and victory has never come easily.

Now view this conundrum through Tyrone blinkers. Mickey Harte's team was supposedly mired somewhere between decline and difficult transition over the past two summers yet – if the ball had bounced their way – they might conceivably have beaten Donegal in a brace of Ulster semi-finals.

In 2011, a dominant yet wasteful Tyrone could have been out of the sight before Donegal finally got motoring before half-time; and a drawn game was still balanced on a knife-edge before Dermot Molloy's injury-time goal.

Last summer, Tyrone led by two points shortly after half-time, before being squeezed and suffocated by Donegal's famed vice-grip and going scoreless for over half-an-hour. And yet? Well, but for Paul Durcan's unorthodox save with an outstretched boot to deny Martin Penrose, the game would surely have ended in stalemate.

Tight calls, fine margins...

Now fast-forward to 2013. All the spring evidence would suggest Tyrone's transition is starting to bear fruit. Their impressive march to a league decider included a four-point victory over 13-man Donegal in a niggly Omagh affair; in the final, even in the absence of their two best forwards, they pushed Dublin to the brink.

Now Peter Harte and Stephen O'Neill are restored to fitness and back on the team. Things are looking up for the revitalised Red Hands.

Meanwhile, whither Donegal? Well, they were relegated on the last day by Dublin, an injury-time draw snatched from the jaws of victory qualifying as a moral defeat. It happened in 'Fortress Ballybofey' too – the scene, tomorrow, of the most eagerly awaited first round provincial football encounter in recent years.

If all this sounds unnecessarily downbeat about the hosts, then it's time to take a rain check. Our own belief (more than a hunch but not a scientifically proven statement either) is that Donegal are primed for a huge game tomorrow.

Long before relegation became a reality, Jim McGuinness had made it clear that he wasn't overly bothered by the league but he was consumed by May 26. The Donegal manager is probably the most meticulous planner in GAA management (although a certain Mickey Harte would push him close) and getting his players ready for this early-season D-Day has been his entire focus. Even the way injuries have cleared up in the nick of time, enabling Donegal to announce the same team that started last year's All-Ireland final, seems to fit in this this image of McGuinness, the master planner ... then again, maybe this is part ruse, part statement of psychological strength?

 

REBUTTED

For the record, even before Thursday's team announcement, Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey had already declared himself ready to start his first competitive county game since last year's All-Ireland final while selector Rory Gallagher has rebutted fears about the fitness of All Stars Frank McGlynn and Mark McHugh.

Donegal may well need their full deck on board, given (a) the relative shallowness of their bench and (b) Tyrone's own pretty clean bill of health.

There are numerous imponderables here, not least the perennial question mark over the hunger of All-Ireland champions in defence of their crown. We don't perceive Donegal to be necessarily different than all the other recent holders who came up short, but we don't believe waning appetite will be an issue here, so early in the campaign, and we can't ignore the X-factor of McGuinness either.

Perhaps his greatest achievement has been to imbue with confidence a group that doubted itself; who's to say Donegal, validated by last year's achievement, won't believe even more?

Tyrone, we suspect, will test that belief to the ultimate – especially if their apparently reborn swarm defence can suffocate with the same intensity that almost undid the Dublin attack last month, and even more so if the magical O'Neill revisits some of his spectacular league highs.

And yet? In what promises to be a fascinating tactical battle, we still reckon the holders at home are the team to beat.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Donegal 8/11, Draw 7/1, Tyrone 13/8

VERDICT: Donegal


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