Martin Breheny: Monaghan powerless to resist Donegal's surge towards title treble
Here's the conundrum for Monaghan. If they could only manage the low average of 12 points against Antrim and Cavan, their fellow Division 3 travellers, in the Ulster quarter-final and semi-final, how can they possibly hope to score enough to win the final against the All-Ireland champions?
It would be a huge challenge against any opposition, but against one of the most miserly defences in history, the scale of the problem is magnified. It has, no doubt, occupied the thoughts of Monaghan's strategists but one thing is certain – 12 points won't be enough to win.
It was sufficient for Armagh (1-9) to beat Donegal (0-9) in 2006 but times have changed dramatically in Tir Chonaill land since then. In 2006, they were just another hopeful outfit; now they carry the distinction of being the most successful Donegal squad in history as they bid for an 11th consecutive win in Ulster and a third successive provincial title.
Granted, they scored only 12 points in the semi-final, but Down's determination to test Donegal over a grinding defensive course left them unable to generate sufficient attacking power to win the game.
Therein rests the big challenge when playing Donegal.
Test them with adventure and they will respond in kind; attempt to out-defend them and they will lick their lips at the prospect of a grind-fest.
However difficult it might be to construct a game plan that combines solid defence with an expansive approach further forward, it's Monaghan's only viable option.
In fairness to Monaghan, their low returns against Antrim (0-11) and Cavan (1-10) were out of line with their buccaneering surge through Division 3, during which they hit Meath for 1-18 and 2-16, Antrim for 3-15 and Wicklow for 5-13.
Monaghan have opportunist finishers in corner-forwards Conor McManus and Christopher McGuinness but the big test will be whether they can open the taps further out to feed the snipers.
"We were happy with the results against Antrim and Cavan. The game is based on results and we got over the line, but we wouldn't be happy with how we were playing in the first couple of matches," said midfielder Owen Lennon.
For all that, there's a real confidence in Monaghan that they can really put it up to Donegal, whom they beat in their last four championship clashes. Granted, they were long before the McGuinness era but a feel-good factor from the past can be helpful. It was even referred to by full-back Eamonn McGee, who played on the Donegal teams beaten by Monaghan in the qualifiers in 2007 and '08.
"Monaghan know they have had our number in the recent past and that will be a big thing for them," said McGee.
Five and six years ago scarcely qualify as the "recent past," but those results will still boost the Monaghan spirit as they attempt to win the title for the first time since 1988.
Donegal supporters will have had some concern arising from the mid-range performance against Down, although a slight dip was always a possibility after the pressurised build-up to the first-round showdown with Tyrone.
Monaghan imploded against Tyrone in their last Ulster final outing three years ago, and while that's unlikely to happen tomorrow, the three-in-a-row is still Donegalbound.
Donegal – P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; A Thompson, K Lacey, F McFlynn; R Bradley, R Kavanagh; M McHugh, L McCloone, David Walsh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden.
Monaghan – R Beggan; K Duffy, D Wylie, C Walshe; V Corey, N McAdam, D Mone; O Lennon, D Hughes; P Finlay, S Gallogly, D Malone; C McGuinness, K Hughes, C McManus.
Donegal v Monaghan,
Live, TV3/BBC2, tomorrow, 4.0