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Mayo to fend off both complacency and Fermanagh

ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL Mayo v Fermanagh Croke Park, 3.30 Ref: M Collins (Cork) Live on RTE1 HOWEVER hard they try to remain locked on to the fact that they are preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final, it's still difficult for Mayo to ignore the almost surreal position in which they find themselves.

They haven't won an All-Ireland title for 53 years, haven't been in a final since 1997 or a semi-final for five years, yet they will arrive in Croke Park tomorrow as 2/5 favourites to book a return visit on September 26.

The reason for such bookmaker confidence is a flood of money on Mayo to build on the excellence they displayed against Mayo, Roscommon and Tyrone. Plus, of course, the fact that their semi-final opponents are Fermanagh.

Despite successive wins over Meath, Cork, Donegal and Armagh in circumstances which tested their character to the limit of its endurance, Fermanagh aren't being taken seriously be the betting classes, or by many others for that matter.

It's bizarre and illogical and it's also a worry for Mayo. John Maughan has placed bouncers at the dressing-room door to ensure that complacency doesn't sneak in although he insists that it wasn't necessary.

"Supporters can form any opinion they like but all that matters to the team and management is getting it right for an All-Ireland semi-final. We know how good Fermanagh are - after all they knocked us out of the championship last year - so we are approaching this game in the same frame of mind we used against Galway, Roscommon and Tyrone.

"Anybody who suggests anything to the contrary hasn't a clue what they're talking about," he said.

No doubt, Maughan is right. He - and his fellow selectors - will have done everything to focus the players' minds on the challenge rather than the opportunity. If Mayo take their eyes off tomorrow's fence for the briefest second they are headed for a thumping fall.

"We're not doing that so it's not an issue," said Maughan but deep down he must be concerned that his players will become infected by the epidemic of presumption that is sweeping through the county.

After all, it's difficult to avoid catching a cold if the entire neighbourhood is wheezing and coughing. However, if Maughan's anti-flu jabs have worked and Mayo continue down the confident road they discovered this year, they are good enough to win, not because they are playing Fermanagh but because they have shown signs of developing into an exceptionally formidable side.

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The marker was sunk early when they recovered from a 1-3 to 0-0 deficit against Galway to win the rest of the game by 0-18 to 0-6. Mayo were equally compelling in the Connacht final against Roscommon, eventually winning by ten points.

And, most convincing of all, Mayo ejected defending champions, Tyrone in their last game. The defining period came when Stephen O'Neill's goal brought the sides level in the second half.

Previous Mayo teams might have seen their resolve melt into great big puddles but not this one. New-age Mayo aren't just confident, they also have the necessary skill and composure to plot their way out of trouble.

James Nallen seems to have been doing sentry duty forever but his efficiency levels remain high as he knits the Mayo defence into a tight, tigerish unit where no chore is too menial, no responsibility too heavy.

Take Peadar Gardiner. The value of his stock may not have been noticed nationally prior to the Tyrone game but he did one of the best marking jobs ever inflicted on Brian Dooher.

On to midfield where Ronan McGarrity imposed himself splendidly on Seán Cavanagh, sacrificing self for the good of the team while partner, David Brady sauntered forward and kicked three points.

In attack, Kieran McDonald is dancing to a delightful tune that opponents don't seem to hear; the Mortimers are slick and impish, James Gill is pragmatic and industrious while Brian Maloney runs good angles and reads play well.

And then there's Alan Dillon, who out-shone them all against Tyrone with his smart, focussed performance that earned him the man-of-the-match award. Unquestionably, Mayo have a whole lot going for them but the one imponderable is how they will cope with the burden of hot favouritism.

Fermanagh will attempt to exploit that, pointing out that their progress has been just as impressive while all the time reminding themselves that they beat Mayo in last year's championship.

They too have their star performers. Niall Bogue, Barry Owens and Raymond Johnston have been colossal figures in defence, Martin McGrath and Liam McBarron are powerful and diligent midfielders while Stephen Maguire, Mark Little and Colm Bradley are smart and inventive in attack.

One area where neither side have majored so far is in the art of goal-scoring. Fermanagh have scored just one goal in six hours 30 minutes of championship action while their last two returns of 1-10 (v Donegal) and 0-12 (v Armagh) is unlikely to sustain them tomorrow.

Mayo scored two goals against Roscommon but drew blanks against Galway and Tyrone although it didn't matter because of their prodigious points capability. However, both sides will be aware that an improved goal ratio greatly enhances their prospects over the long term.

Mayo look the more complete team. Fermanagh are over-priced at 5/2 but while their direct, fluent style will make progress around the fringes, one suspects that Mayo's central core is sufficiently stable. VERDICT: Mayo

MAYO - P Burke; C Moran, D Heaney, G Ruane; P Gardiner, J Nallen, P Kelly; R McGarrity, D Brady; J Gill, K McDonald, A Dillon; C Mortimer, T Mortimer, B Maloney.

FERMANAGH - N Tinney; N Bogue, B Owens, R McCluskey; R Johnston, S McDermott, P Sherry; M McGrath, L McBarron; E Maguire, S Maguire, M Little; C Bradley, J Sherry, C O'Reilly.

- Martin Breheny

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