Alan Brogan: Brave Bonner will attack Dubs but McBrearty loss is huge
There haven't been many games so far in the football championship to really get excited about. For some teams, a place in the Super 8 was probably a key goal at the outset of the season. For Dublin and Donegal, the Super 8 was more likely to have been seen as the real competitive start of their season. Certainly Donegal have come through an Ulster championship with lots of potential pitfalls, but they have been far and away the best team in their province.
With the mind games around venues and talk of tarnished legacies done and dusted, it's time for the football to take over and what an occasion it promises to be when these two clash in Croke Park on Saturday. It's a difficult start for both sides and the stakes are huge. Whoever comes out on top will have one foot in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Donegal will not fear coming to Croke Park to face the Dubs. In 2014 nobody gave them a chance of turning over Dublin, but they came with a plan devised by Jimmy McGuinness and I will never forget how we played right into their hands. I still believe that we were a better team, but Donegal executed their tactical plan perfectly - defensively and offensively - and caught us cold. I don't harbour any regrets from my inter-county career, but that game and Mayo in 2006 are two I'd love to go back in time to and play over again.
Declan Bonner has taken over this team, when it looked like they may have been on the slide after last year's championship when they shipped heavy losses to Tyrone and Galway, and completely revitalised them. The injection of youth married with a solid spine of experience seems to have put Donegal in a much better place.
Under McGuinness, Donegal became known for their counter-attacking game with the likes of Frank McGlynn and Anthony Thompson to the fore. With Thompson moved on and McGlynn moved to a half-forward role, Eoghan Bán Gallagher and Paul Brennan have filled those voids admirably. Both have an eye for a score and when you couple that with Ryan McHugh, arguably one of the most effective footballers in the country, the Dublin forwards will need to track runners all day.
To date, Dublin have been comfortable without setting the world alight. Next Saturday will provide their first real test and will show us exactly where the mindset of the team is after winning three All-Irelands in a row. Will the forwards be willing to do the thankless job and track these runs from deep in Donegal's half? Dublin will probably play with only one extra man back and will try to push up on Donegal's kick-outs, leaving gaps for the pacey Donegal counter-attackers to run into if they are not tracked properly. Jim Gavin will be acutely aware of this and don't expect any Dublin forward not willing to do this work to last too long.
As we saw with Kildare last week, sometimes a team needs something extra to fight for. This Dublin team has done it all and, rightly or wrongly, questions will be asked whether deep down they still have that burning desire within that you need to win All-Irelands.
The talk around Dublin playing two Super 8 games in Croke Park could well galvanise the team even further and it may be a case of poking the bear. Dublin will want to produce a performance and I'm sure the defeat in 2014 still hurts the guys who were involved.
The loss of Paddy McBrearty to injury is a huge blow to Donegal. When you lose a player like Paddy it has an enormous psychological impact on the team. He is more important for Donegal's chances than Diarmuid Connolly is for Dublin's.
Like Bernard Brogan a few years ago, Padraig Joyce with Galway or Steven McDonnell with Armagh, his ability to get a score from nothing is not something you can replace. Jamie Brennan and Ciaran Thompson have been excellent up front this year and in McBrearty's absence will need to step up another level.
Dublin have done what has been expected of them. In the Leinster final I thought Laois caused Dublin plenty of problems in the full-back line with the aerial threat of Donie Kingston. He may have been have a bit isolated at times, but I'm sure Bonner will have noticed this and I'd expect to see Michael Murphy do a stint at full-forward. The big games tend to bring the best out of Philly McMahon and this is a challenge he will relish.
Dublin's answer to Ryan McHugh will surely be to put Jack McCaffrey back in the team from the off. His speed will be crucial to breaking down the Donegal rearguard who have only conceded two goals in four games. It was remarkable to watch McCaffrey's speed in the Leinster final, coming only nine months after a cruciate ligament operation.
Dublin's front six have become very potent. There is a lovely mix of panache and score-taking ability coupled with a ferocious desire to get the ball back once the opposition have it. This is the foundation on which this Dublin team is built. Some may not think Paddy Andrews would get into other top contenders' forward line, but watch his movement off the ball, watch how he creates space for players all around, watch how he is always an outlet for a kick pass and watch how hard he works to get the ball back.
Niall Scully, one of the newer generation, falls into a similar bracket. They aren't the big names Ciaran Kilkenny or Con O'Callaghan are, but in a way, they epitomise how Dublin go about their business on the field.
One of Bonner's big dilemmas is who he matches up to mark Dublin's front men. They have scoring ability everywhere and it will need to be a huge performance from the Donegal rearguard to nullify the Dublin attack. Donegal will probably drop McGlynn back to protect them, but we saw last year how Dublin dismantled Tyrone as they were stuck in a predictable, rigid defensive structure. If Donegal play like this, I see only one winner.
Donegal will need, at times, to throw caution to the wind and commit numbers to attack. If they can't get the likes of Brennan and Murphy one on one with Dublin defenders it could be a long day for them.
In saying that, I think Bonner is a coach of a different mindset. Donegal are the last team to beat Dublin in the championship and this must sow a little seed of doubt in the back of Dublin's players' minds. I think Bonner will be brave enough and has the belief in his charges to send them out to go toe to toe with Dublin. That doesn't mean abandoning a defensive system, it means committing men to the attack when Donegal have the ball and maintaining a shape to your team up front when Dublin have possession.
I think it will be a belter of a game - I can see it being close for the first 60 minutes with Dublin to pull away then and win by four.
Sunday Indo Sport