Tuesday 17 July 2018

Dubs on top but rivals lurking in pursuit - Martin Breheny ranks the 12 teams left in the football championship

The return of Cian O’Sullivan (left) to full fitness would provide Dublin with a huge boost. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The return of Cian O’Sullivan (left) to full fitness would provide Dublin with a huge boost. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

And then there were 12. Mayo are the most notable absentees as the football championship cull continues this weekend in order to complete the line-up for the 'Super 8s'. So how do the 12 contenders rank and what have their championship campaigns to date told us?

1 DUBLIN

What have we learned? Absolutely nothing. Playing teams that were ranked 32nd (Wicklow), 19th (Longford) and 25th (Laois) in the Allianz League gives no indication as to the Dubs' state of readiness for the real tests ahead. None of the other seven counties who reach the Super 8 will have got there by playing so many counties ranked in the bottom half.

Their biggest fear? That the sense of obsession to succeed which has underpinned their game for so long has dulled. It's only in the whitest of heat they will discover if that's the case.

Home Truth: They need Cian O'Sullivan back in defence. His game-reading and general solidity has been crucial to their big successes. Dublin were vulnerable at the back against Galway in the league final and in the first half against Laois two weeks ago.

Bottom Line: Only the four-timer will suffice for them.

2 KERRY

What have we learned? Their forwards can certainly clean out Division 2 defences (0-32 v Clare; 3-18 v Cork). Indeed, with a little more precision, they could have scored at least another three goals in the Munster final.

Their biggest fear? That the defensive set-up still isn't quite right. They conceded ten goals in the league and while their forward excellence turned the Munster final into a rout, they were opened up quite easily in the opening ten minutes.

Home Truth: Unless they improve defensively, the season will end in disappointment again.

Bottom Line: It's all about stopping Dublin winning the four-in-a-row. Kerry were last to achieve it in (1978-'81) so the current group have a heritage to protect.

3 GALWAY

What have we learned? That they are better prepared for a return to the big Croke Park action than in previous years. A season in Division 2 has hardened them to top-flight requirements and, as they showed against Roscommon in the second half, their problem-solving has improved.

Their biggest fear? That they don't get the balance right between defensive security and attacking creativity. They were hit for an average of 2-15 in their last five championship games in Croke (2013-2017) and have Kerry, who beat comfortably in two of those, as their first opponents on Sunday week. That will test the latest model.

Home Truth: They need to make more use of their substantial attacking powers.

Bottom Line: It will be a big setback if they fail to reach the All-Ireland semi-final for the first time in 17 years.

4 DONEGAL

What have we learned? Unlucky to be relegated from Division 1, they looked much more like the Donegal of old in the Ulster Championship, albeit off a more attacking platform. They averaged 2-19 against Cavan, Derry, Down and Fermanagh.

Their biggest fear? That the opposition in Ulster was poor, leaving them untested ahead for the first Super 8 clash with Dublin, the toughest possible opener they could have got.

Home Truth: Complaining last week about Dublin having two home games in the Super 8 was a bad idea. They are right, of course, but since there was never a chance of having it changed this year they would have been better to ignore it until later in the year when the county board can draft a motion for Congress.

Bottom Line: The loss of the injured Paddy McBrearty could leave them losing out on a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

5 TYRONE

What have we learned? Nothing particularly new. Losing in Ulster has never been a major setback to their All-Ireland prospects so this is familiar territory. Their survival instincts are always finely tuned in the qualifiers, which they again displayed against Meath and Cavan in recent weeks.

Their biggest fear? That they are on a plateau at a certain level but lack the dynamism to move any higher.

Home Truth: The season will be a serious failure if they fail to get into the Super 8s.

Bottom Line: It's very hard to see them being in Croke Park in September.

6 MONAGHAN

What have we learned? That a certain carelessness can creep unexpectedly into their play as happened against Down last year and Fermanagh this year. It may have cost them two Ulster titles.

Their biggest fear? That old failings are too deeply ingrained to correct, especially if they reach the heightened company of the 'Super 8s'.

Home Truth: They still rely too much on Conor McManus on the big days.

Bottom Line: The long pursuit of a place in the All-Ireland semi-final is likely to continue.

7 ROSCOMMON

What have we learned? Top scorers across all four divisions in the Allianz League, they created enough chances to beat Galway in the Connacht final but didn't take them. Still, the scoring potential is there.

Their biggest fear? Armagh have a good record in Round 4 and are full of momentum again after three wins.

Home Truth: A win over Leitrim was enough to ensure a place in the last 12 so they can consider themselves fortunate to be in with a good chance of reaching the Super 8s when so many other counties had much tougher engagements.

Bottom Line: Three games; three defeats. That's their record in Round 4 qualifiers - they need to change the trend.

8 KILDARE

What have we learned? That a dismal Division 1 league campaign, where they lost all seven games, followed by a seven-point defeat by Carlow in the Leinster quarter-final, didn't break their spirit. Cian O'Neill's stock plummeted after that game, with some Kildare supporters calling for his resignation. Three wins later, he - and the squad - are very much back in favour.

Their biggest fear? That the exertions and euphoria of last weekend will leave them vulnerable against Fermanagh's grim defensive hand today.

Home Truth: The gains from last Saturday's great win over Mayo will be squandered if they lose today.

Bottom Line: They relaunched their season after the unexpected defeat by Carlow and have a great opportunity to take it into history-making territory by qualifying for the inaugural 'Super 8s'. It would be some turnaround.

9 CORK

What have we learned? That on all available evidence, they haven't made any progress on last year. The win over Tipperary suggested they were building something but it was flattened very easily by Kerry, who hit them for 3-18 in a 15-point win.

Their biggest fear? They are likely to lose to Tyrone today but the real concern is that they if are well beaten it will leave what was supposed to be a relaunch year ending on an another low after winning only four of ten league and championship games.

Home Truth: Their stock has less value than for a very long time.

Bottom Line: After the dreadful performance against Kerry, several players are playing for their futures.

10 ARMAGH

What have we learned? That doing better in the qualifiers than Ulster has become the norm for the Orchard men.

Their biggest fear? That they give Roscommon the chances they offered Clare last Saturday when they produced a stunning late comeback to rescue themselves. They're unlikely to get a similar reprieve in the same scenario today.

Home Truth: They can't afford to concede as much (1-15) for a second successive week.

Bottom Line: They are one win away from qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the third time in five seasons. That's impressive for a team that won only one game in the Ulster Championship in those years.

11 FERMANAGH

What have we learned? That an ultra-defensive system carries no guarantee against a heavy defeat. Their sophisticated security arrangements worked brilliantly against Armagh and Monaghan but once Donegal broke it early in the Ulster final, there was no way back.

Their biggest fear? That the impact of a heavy defeat in the Ulster final leaves them flat when they come up against a buoyant Kildare this evening.

Home Truth: They scored an average of 11.5 points when leaving Armagh and Monaghan frustrated and defeated. That, however, won't be nearly enough to beat Kildare who put 21 points on Mayo last weekend.

Bottom Line: Losing the Ulster final so heavily was very disappointing but they did well to get there, having earlier won promotion from Division 3. All told, they are now in bonus territory.

12 LAOIS

What have we learned? That they are improving steadily, albeit from a low level they should never have reached.

Their biggest fear? That after losing so heavily to Dublin, they might find it very hard to lift themselves, although they have had two weeks to refocus.

Home Truth: They are swimming out of their depth again. This will show how much they learned from the difficult Leinster final experience against Dublin.

Bottom Line: No beaten Leinster finalists since Kildare in 2009 in have won a Round 4 qualifier and it seems unlikely that Laois will be able to alter that statistic against Monaghan tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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