Alan Brogan: 'There's air of madness around Mayo and Dublin and Horan's men have ability to rattle the champions'
THERE'S an air of unpredictability about Mayo now that adds a bit of uncertainty to Saturday. If you're a pundit and you're tracing form lines and acknowledging all the recent evidence before delivering your verdict, there's no reasonable argument for anything other than a Dublin win.
But that's not really how All-Ireland semi-finals work. And it's definitely not how this rivalry has worked over the past few years either.
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Back to Mayo's unpredictability.
Going into the 2017 All-Ireland final, the only selection issue in the Mayo team was whether Diarmuid O'Connor or Paddy Durcan would start.
We knew what Mayo would bring and they brought plenty of it but there was nothing Jim Gavin hadn't prepared for.
Now? On some level, I think James Horan is happy that by default, Robbie Hennelly is now his first choice goalkeeper again, although I'm sure he'd had preferred not to have had to drop him after his disaster against Roscommon.
David Clarke is a spectacularly good shot-stopper. He's solid in the air and he emits a sense of calm to those in front of him.
But kick-outs are such a huge part of the game now. If Clarke doesn't get his out quickly and has to go long, as happened several times against Kerry in Killarney, Mayo can get hemmed in because the high, floating trajectory of his kicks allow opposition players to swarm the receiver before the ball drops.
Against Donegal on Saturday night, Hennelly was deliberately slow with his restarts.
He waited to see how Donegal set up and if they were high up the pitch, he kicked it 60 metres over the press into a one-on-one situation in the Donegal half. That's a huge, pressure-relieving asset to have.
Obviously Hennelly has been prone not only to mistakes, but compounding them in the past.
But largely, his presence removes the possibility of Dublin pinning Mayo in for five or six minutes and scoring heavily.
Will Andy Moran start?
Given Jason Doherty's injury and Darren Coen's poor performance against Donegal, it's hard to see him not starting.
But Mayo need him on the pitch in the last ten minutes.
Keith Higgins has been so reliable for Mayo for so long, but he struggled on Cormac Costello in the wide expanses of Croke Park in March.
And unless James Horan shreds the script as to how Mayo have played against Dublin over the past seven years, we'll have plenty of situations where a defender and a forward are isolated in space.
That's the thing about Croke Park. The dimensions of the pitch aren't much bigger than the majority of county grounds but there seems to be so much more space because of the distance to the crowd. Dublin have the pace up front to get maximum profit from those duels.
I'd have Ryan McHugh down as one of the top five footballers in Ireland over the past three years but I've never seen him as ineffective or peripheral as he was in Castlebar on Saturday night.
Paddy Durcan did a brilliant job stifling him but it was a collective effort on Mayo's part.
Every time McHugh tried to make a run, someone would impede him or stick their arm across him and just make sure he had no clear space to sprint into.
Presumably, that's something Mayo will try with Jack McCaffrey on Saturday but it's more difficult to do in Croke Park.
And all Jack needs is one chance and if he goes past his man, a goal can open up very quickly.
I'd expect Colm Boyle and Cian O'Sullivan will both be sweepers on Saturday evening and that everyone else will go man-to-man.
In the past, one of Mayo's strengths have been getting those match-ups right.
If we're to assume Lee Keegan goes on Ciarán Kilkenny, who then takes up Con O'Callaghan? Or Paul Mannion?
What happens if Diarmuid Connolly comes on? I thought Diarmuid did well on Sunday in Omagh, without being spectacular.
Really the only selection issues for Jim Gavin is which players make his bench.
Seán Bugler and Paddy Small obviously did well up front but on the other end of the age spectrum, Diarmuid obviously provides something no other player can, while I thought Bernard looked really sharp when he came on.
To me, it was interesting that he went for goal with that chance that ended up a point. It's difficult to teach that killer instinct.
Dublin play in a very systematic way but players like Bernard and Diarmuid have that sense of when to go for the jugular and that could be required in the latter stages on Saturday in Croke Park.
Bernard may not have enough done to force his way into a spot on the field but his experience in the dressing room on Saturday could play a small part that might make the largest of differences to his younger team mates on the field.
Mayo and Dublin bring the madness out in each other.
There is no team in the country that can force Dublin off-script the way Mayo have done in the past.
They manage it by doing what no other team does against Dublin – by going man-on-man, by being really aggressive and by taking risks that occasionally border on reckless.
They'll leave their defensive postings and gallop towards goal from all over the pitch, they'll sacrifice presence in midfield by having Aidan O'Shea occasionally push up on Cian O'Sullivan and they'll kick those diagonal balls into the full-forward line that Dublin have had issues with over the past 12 months.
All that ambition comes with risk, though. And what has made this Dublin team great over the last four years isn't their ability to incinerate teams of a lower level or meticulously execute their game plan against tightly-packed defenses, it's how they have reacted to being thrust into awkward situations in the biggest games, occasionally by Kerry but mostly by Mayo.
Without fail, their big players have come up with the big plays in the biggest of moments.
I don't see that changing on Saturday.