Thursday 22 March 2018

Today's football championship previews

Dermot Crowe

Leinster SFC Final

Dublin v Meath, Croke Park, 4.0

Last weekend, Diarmuid Connolly nailed 3-5 for St Vincent's in a league match that had observers invariably calculating his loss to Dublin this afternoon. Connolly's irritating disciplinary relapse deprives the county of a key forward, but it is hard to imagine that Dublin's focus will be compromised as readily as his was against Wexford.

Having won the All-Ireland, Dublin's league form has been of a sulky nature, fitful even, and it has seeped into the summer. They pulverised Louth but had Wexford shown any composure they'd have sent Dublin to the qualifiers. That fuzziness can't continue indefinitely and this is the point where they will seek to raise their game to a new plateau and kick on; it is like they've been waiting for the spark. The slightly worrying approaching silhouette of Meath should provide the impetus. If not, then they are in bother.

Meath went into the year moderately rated in the province, then managed to lower those evaluations further during the course of a joyless spring -- upheaval off the field, uncharacteristic surrender on it. They have managed to transform the atmosphere by beating Kildare. You could nitpick and say Kildare blew it with woeful finishing, but Meath were well organised, clever in their defensive strategy, not allowing them to make runs through the middle.

The form of Graham Reilly, an outstanding footballer, continued and he has emerged as a key driving force who will be keenly watched by Dublin and impeded at every turn. Dublin's selection is a curious one. Michael Dara Macauley is unlikely to play at full-forward where he's named, the belief is that he will punch in his time around the middle and help stop some of those marauding runs from Reilly.

Cian O'Sullivan has replaced Ger Brennan in the half backs and, aside from being a talented player, is very quick on his feet. Meath have pacy players in that area and Dublin don't want to grant them any momentum. Only two years ago, they let in five goals when they were guilty of mental and tactical complacency. They are a great deal more prepared today.

Most encouragingly for Meath, aside from the background issues having dissolved and replaced by tremendous optimism, has been the arrival of some excellent new players. Damien Carroll, stylish and creative, seemed to come out of nowhere. Alan Forde is a bit raw but full of bombast. Conor Gillespie looks mature beyond his years. Brian Farrell, one of the older generation, is in the form of his life. They also recall Kevin Reilly, who adds experience and strength to the full-back line.

There is some speculation about Ciaran Kilkenny being a possible starter in Dublin's attack. If he doesn't start then he'll surely see some action. He's one of a new generation of exciting footballers waiting to come into the team and another warning to those holding positions that no one is indispensable. Dublin seemed to lose sight of that at various times this year. It won't happen today and that should be enough to stall Meath's progress.

Dublin: S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, R O'Carroll, P McMahon; J McCarthy, K Nolan, C O'Sullivan; E Fennell, D Bastick; P Flynn, A Brogan, B Cullen; B Brogan, MD Macauley, K McManamon

Meath: D Gallagher; D Keogan, K Reilly, M Burke; D Tobin, S McAnarney, B Menton; C Gillespie, B Meade; A Forde, D Carroll, G Reilly; B Farrell, J Sheridan, S Bray

Verdict: Dublin

Ulster SFC Final

Down v Donegal, Clones, 2.0

For a team chaotic for a good deal of the semi-final against Monaghan, and prone to mixed displays when the traditional flair and magic is absent, Down still command an enduring and genuine respect among their peers. They do so because of the county's long-established cavalier instincts and the admirable tendency to produce great football performances, sometimes out of the blue. To that extent, Donegal will not travel bloated with confidence in spite of what the bookies state.

If they get caught up in the Donegal combine harvester, they're toast. The selection is symptomatic of Donegal's growing influence on oppositions, even one as unreconstructed as Down's. Danny Hughes is named at half-back in the strangest of those decisions but it has a certain degree of logic if they are to find a way of upsetting Donegal's master plan. Hughes has in recent matches spent a great deal of time behind his midfield, carrying ball out of their own half of the field.

The demotion of Kalum King -- if the selection is to be trusted -- raises eyebrows. He was strong in the second half against Monaghan and has good tackling and defensive virtues, which might have been seen as useful in that zone where Donegal come attacking in waves. Instead, Kevin McKernan, a versatile footballer who likes to attack, takes up residence alongside Ambrose Rodgers. It is a scoring midfield and they are helped by the loss through injury of Donegal's Neil Gallagher.

Dan Gordon has been out for some time through injury but is recalled to centre-back. Benny Coulter returns and will add a goal threat. Down will draw some confidence from beating Donegal in the league, although the visitors to Newry were without Michael Murphy.

Donegal have shown the form expected in the championship, seeing off Cavan, Derry and Tyrone with a system of play that sees them on the brink of a historic second Ulster title in a row. Looking at where they were when Jim McGuinness took over, this new monastic life-change is a fascinating metamorphosis. They have started to allow the football that was always in Donegal greater expression as the confidence has grown.

In the league, Kerry gave them a thumping and afterwards Jack O'Connor talked of ways they'd identified of dealing with that ultra-defensive, bone-crunching sweeper system Donegal have obsessively bought into. Quick lay-off. No deliberating. And, of course, having the calibre of footballer to execute the plan. To think on their feet and be creative and bold when needs be. All very Down traits.

Not having won since 1994 and eyeing this up from afar, Down, the last of the Bohemians, may just pull it off.

Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, D O'Hagan; D Hughes, D Gordon, A Brannagan; A Rogers, K McKernan; D O'Hare, M Poland, A Carr; B Coulter, C Laverty, E McCartan

Donegal: P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, F McGlynn; E McGee, K Lacey, A Thompson; R Bradley, R Kavanagh; D Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh; P McBrearty, M Murphy, C McFadden

Verdict: Down

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