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Donegal must show they have moved to next level

THERE was a time in Ulster football when two championship pointers had a high reliability rating.

The winners rarely emerged from the preliminary round and reigning champions seldom retained their title. That held pretty solid for a long time, but Armagh achieved both in the last decade. Indeed, in 2005, Armagh did the double, retaining the title after being drawn in the preliminary round.

They won the Ulster three-in-a-row in 2006, but at least, that year, they were spared the preliminary round challenge. No such luck for Donegal, who, after winning the Ulster title from the preliminary round last year, found themselves tossed straight back into it this term.

In fairness, they carried the load quite lightly, disposing of Cavan with routine efficiency, thus setting up a rerun of last year's Ulster final against Derry. They are strong favourites to advance and therein rests a real challenge.

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness will know that this is a far more dangerous assignment than is generally recognised, even if Derry have had a miserable set of results since hitting Armagh for 3-14 in last year's Ulster semi-final.

Skilfully out-manoeuvred by Donegal in the Ulster final, they hit the six-day wall against Kildare in the qualifiers. And once they lost to Galway in the first round of this year's Division 2 campaign, it set them on a downward spiral which came mighty close to ending in relegation. Indeed, were it not for Meath's collapse against Louth in the final round, Derry would have dropped into Division 3.

It means that since June 19 last, Derry have won two, drawn one and lost six of nine championship and league games.

They have scored just three goals in that period and seen their average strike rate fall to less than 13 points per game. That's quite a drop from their average of 2-16 against Fermanagh and Armagh in the 2011 Ulster championship.

On top of that, they have to travel to Ballybofey this evening to take on a hugely confident Donegal team which is seeking its sixth successive win in the Ulster SFC.

At face value, it's a massive test for Derry, but, in a different way, it's equally demanding for Donegal.

McGuinness repeatedly talks of setting goals for the squad, many of which are within individual games. It's a policy which has worked well, even if he hasn't got the credit -- certainly not outside of Donegal -- for presiding over such a dramatic transformation in the county's fortunes.

The big challenge this evening is coping with being regarded as absolute certainties to advance to the semi-final.

It proved too much for both Galway and Limerick last Saturday when, like Donegal, they had home advantage to strengthen their cases against Sligo and Clare respectively.

It counted for nothing once they were subjected to real pressure, no more than Ballybofey will insulate Donegal from enemy fire if Paddy Bradley and Co get a decent supply.

Donegal were always going to beat Cavan, but now find themselves in the awkward position of being short odds-on favourites to beat a team which has been underperforming.

In a sense, that's new territory for Donegal. McGuinness showed that he was adept at coming up with blueprints to cope with different situations last year, so he will certainly have strategies in place to cope with various eventualities this evening.

However, the real test faces the squad, who can't have remained immune from the confidence sweeping through Donegal that this is merely a warm-up act for the showdown with Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final.

If even one drop of that mentality seeps into Donegal's consciousness, Derry's 9/4 odds will become mighty good value.

Irish Independent

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