Saturday 24 March 2018

Ciaran Whelan: Mayo can unlock Donegal's defence

Read Ciaran Whelan's column every Friday only in The Herald

Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan saves from Mayo's Lee Keegan during the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final
Donegal goalkeeper Paul Durcan saves from Mayo's Lee Keegan during the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final

Herald Sport

We have waited long enough this year but this Saturday we will finally get to see two of the top teams come head-to-head in Croke Park with no trap door available to the losers.

Donegal and Mayo will lock horns in what hopefully will give a much needed spark to the championship. The curtain-raiser between Monaghan and Tyrone will also whet the appetite and could still prove to be the tighter game.

Mayo arrive back in headquarters this weekend in their latest endeavour to bring home Sam Maguire. It is hard not to admire this Mayo team. Their recent past experiences in Croke Park have mixed the good with the absolutely horrible but to their credit this group of players have continued to come back to the well time and time again.

These players continue to follow their dream and they are not willing to give up just yet. Individually Mayo have a group of well accomplished footballers and Saturday will be the acid test for new joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes.

Apart from the added dimension of Aidan O'Shea at full-forward, not a lot has changed with Mayo this year. Granted the reins have been put on Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle going forward but generally Mayo still play a high line. They trust themselves to dominate midfield which puts their forward line on the front foot.

Unfortunately for Mayo when you play Donegal you have to adapt and change. If Donegal bring their 'A' game on Saturday then Mayo will have no option but to change their strategy. If Mayo make the same mistakes as previous years and concede two or three goals, their backsides will be put through the bacon slicer and deservedly so.

The Mayo management has plenty to go on ahead of this match. Dublin v Donegal 2014 is the perfect example of how not to play Donegal who will relish counter-attacking into open spaces. Kerry v Donegal 2014 is the template of how to stifle Donegal and ensure the first priority is not to concede goals.

And therein lies the real challenge for Mayo.

Against Galway, Donegal finally decided to unleash Michael Murphy back in at full-forward for the second half and it transformed the Donegal performance.

Read more: 'All-Ireland glory would be fitting reward for Higgins' selfless off-field efforts'

I do not believe Mayo have anyone in their back six capable of keeping Murphy at bay when he is placed on the edge of the square. This is where Connelly and Holmes need to show their ruthless streak and come up with an alternative plan.

If Mayo can protect their full-back line against the threat of Murphy and goals from Donegal, then there is no doubt they have the artillery to win this game.

Donegal's first half performance against Galway lacked conviction and there were small signs of fatigue and weariness in their defensive structure.

However, their big players like Colm McFadden, Odhrán Mac Neilis, Neil Gallagher, Ryan McHugh and Murphy all stood up when needed in the second half. With seven days to recover it is questionable whether Donegal can bring the required levels of intensity to the game that will be required.

Whilst Mayo may not be able to kick the ball long into Aidan O'Shea as much as they like, his threat at full-forward will certainly attract a couple of extra Donegal defenders dropping deeper into their defence.

I suspect that this will allow Mayo to find pockets of space in the half-forward line that will allow them to penetrate the Donegal defence and pick off some scores.

Paul Durcan's long kick outs that drop in the half-forward line are a fundamental part of the Donegal strategy where they commit their wing-backs to the breaking ball. When Donegal dominate games it is usually on the back of midfield dominance through Gallagher. With Seamus O'Shea and Tom Parson in good form, Mayo will feel they can test Donegal in this area.

All in all it will be an intriguing battle between two heavyweights which is a difficult one to call. The small cracks in the Donegal system were papered over last weekend so on that basis I expect Mayo will mix up their style of play and come through narrowly.

Who do you think you are fooling, Bomber?

I HAVE to say I had a good laugh to myself on Monday morning when I opened the Irish Independent to review the weekend sports action to be greeted with the headline above Eoin Liston's column that read: "Dubs still team to beat despite all Kerry's positives".

I thought to myself "Come on Bomber who are you kidding?"

The dust was still settling on Sunday's All-Ireland quarter-finals and the Kerry PR machine had already swung into action. Kerry must be worried now that they have hit the hype button too early this year.

Usually they like to swoop late, peak in September and head back to Tralee or Killarney leaving everyone thinking that they have picked up an easy All-Ireland.

Sure an auld rumour of a dust up in training or a fallout between Kieran Donaghy and Eamonn Fitzmaurice would do the job in the coming weeks to dampen expectation levels!

Colm Cooper comes on as a substitute for Kerry against Cork at Fitzgerald Stadium earlier this month

It could be argued that Kerry are sitting pretty and are exactly where Dublin were this time last year. However, this Kerry team looks a bit more road-tested than Dublin may have been and it is hard to see them getting caught cold in their All-Ireland semi-final.

When you benchmark them and weight them up against the top teams they currently come out on top in many areas: Tried and trusted defensive system - check; Strongest midfield in the country - check; Depth of options from the bench - check. Long-range freetaker - check; Versatility in style of play - check.

Yerra, from where I am sitting 'Bomber' there is only one team in pole position presently!

Herald Sport

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