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WHEN Kerry and Mayo last met in championship action back in 2011, it was business as usual for the Kingdom as they easily beat the new Connacht champions en route to another All-Ireland final appearance.

However, when Kerry coughed up a four-point lead inside the last five minutes of that final to Dublin, it was argued to be the beginning of the end of what had been a glorious period for a team who had won five All-Ireland titles from nine final appearances.

The spine of the team that had been so successful during those 14 years, Darragh and Tomás O'Se, Paul Galvin, and Michael McCarthy were exiting the stage, and on the back of a period that produced a solitary U21 All-Ireland title from three final appearances at both minor (2004, 2006) and U21 grade (2008), there was a feeling that the talent pool may be running dry.

In comparison, despite falling well short in that last eight meetings and on the back of consecutive minor final appearances in 2008 and 2009, Mayo appeared to be unearthing fresh attacking talent that might well be the piece of the jigsaw that had been so sorely missing in their quest for a first All-Ireland since 1951.

Certainly they raised the bar since that game, contesting back-to-back All-Ireland deciders only to come up short on both occasions, but as the Munster and Connacht champions prepare for battle this weekend, it must be slightly concerning for Mayo manager James Horan that his reliance on effectively the same attacking unit from their last championship encounter with Kerry is in sharp contrast to the freshness of the Kingdom's front six.

Three years ago in Horan's first season in charge of Mayo Enda Varley and Alan Freeman started alongside the constants of the Mayo attack Alan Dillon and Andy Moran (barring injury), with former minor stars Cillian O'Connor and Kevin McLaughlin completing a new look front six.

Three weeks ago, Aidan O'Shea who started at centrefield in 2011 filled in at No 11, while Jason Doherty who was introduced as sub when the counties last met completed the attacking formation.

And while on the face of it it appears that Mayo have a new attacking dimension, backed up by the fact that all six starting forwards scored from play against Cork, the introduction of both Varley and Freeman merely highlighted the lack of new attacking options available to Horan.

In contrast, Kerry have three new names in their forward unit, Dingle's Paul and Micheal Geaney and Dr Crokes Johnny Buckley. And although James O'Donoghue made an appearance from the bench, given his level of performance over the past two seasons it is clear he has made great strides in the intervening years.

O'Donoghue is without doubt the standout forward at the moment, a player who has both the ability and confidence to change the course of a game where his acceleration can suddenly transform a nothing ball into a genuine goal-scoring opportunity. But while the Legion man is the focal point, he is being supported by an attack whose fluidity is at times quiet mesmerising.

But if Kerry appear to hold the trump card in attack, or more specifically in their inside forward line, their defensive unit which was second only to Dublin in terms of scores conceded during the league, was severely questioned by a Galway side who despite hitting over a half a dozen wides in the opening half alone, still amassed a tidy 2-10 total.

There is no doubt that Eamonn Fitzmaurice has adopted some plays from the defensive manual that for so long was a feature of the game Kerry never really embraced, epitomised in his positioning of Declan O'Sullivan in a far deeper role amongst his own half-back line.

But Galway midfielder Thomas Flynn's 60-metre run and finish through the heart of the Kerry defence in their All-Ireland quarter-final meeting appears to indicate that there is still some work to be completed to fully perfect this new defensive strategy.

As a back six, Keith Higgins aside, Mayo have had their own problems this year, but while they may lack the solidity they exhibited 12 months ago, as a team unit their defensive set-up is that bit more polished than Kerry's right now.

The intensity of their tackling, particularly from the likes of Jason Doherty who orchestrated a number of turnovers against Cork has caught the eye this year, and given the lack of experience across the Kingdom's half-back line, a high tempo pressure game from the Mayo attack maybe the best way to disrupt the supply line to O'Donoghue and Co.

In a championship season that has seen it's fair share of one-sided games, Sunday's encounter has all the ingredients for a potential Croker cracker, and while the attacking talent of Kerry and O'Donoghue gives Fitzmaurice's team every opportunity of reaching the All-Ireland final, I'm going to give a tentative nod to a Mayo team who just maybe able to produce the more complete team performance.


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