Eoin Liston: Fear and hurt will drive Donegal – but they need a Plan B
Jim McGuinness will be experiencing something new this week. For the first time since he took over as Donegal's senior manager, there are doubts hanging over his team.
Sure, during his first year at the helm, some people wondered about his defensive approach and what it may mean for the game, but it was universally acknowledged that he was turning his team into serious contenders.
Indeed, what he has done has been remarkable. In 2010, Armagh wiped the floor with Donegal in a qualifier in Crossmaglen. Just two years later, many of those same players were All-Ireland champions.
To take a group so far in such a short time will go down as one of the most remarkable managerial achievements. But now, there are suggestions they are there for the taking with Laois having a huge chance to beat them this evening.
I do think the champions will survive this one. It's only a short while since Laois were heavily beaten by Louth in the Leinster championship. They've regrouped since, and have gone on a decent qualifier run, but the gulf between these teams is massive.
Monaghan showed on Sunday how Donegal's much-vaunted defensive set-up can be beaten by playing them at their own game. However, to say it provides a template for Laois is somewhat premature.
It takes massive work on the training ground to perfect those tactics, and manager Justin McNulty does not have time on his side. I'd also be doubtful they have the players – losing Brendan Quigley after the Louth game was a huge blow.
Donegal, however, are simply not going well. They were relegated from Division 1 of the league and I don't care what anyone says, they did not want that to happen. Also, Down feel that they left the Ulster semi-final behind them, and they have since been eliminated.
But perhaps the most significant thing to consider when predicting this one is the fact that Donegal will be feeling something that they haven't felt for a few years – hurt. And that is how McGuinness will be able to get his players focused to turn their season around.
The pain of defeat can be the fuse that ignites a team into action. Their pride is wounded and they are in danger of losing their All-Ireland crown. It is this pain and fear that gives teams the madness that is required to go that extra yard.
I'm sure McGuinness was left confused about what happened in Clones. Did the unthinkable happen – did they become complacent? That will eat at the manager who takes such pride in having his team in the right place mentally. His attention to detail is incredible, though, so I would be slow to accuse them of looking too far ahead of themselves.
He will have analysed the game over and over throughout the week. He will realise that the intensity simply wasn't there and that they just didn't match Monaghan's aggression and work rate. Hard questions will have been asked at training since, and there would have been a lot of soul searching.
I believe they need to come up with something new tactically to inject some life into the side, not just for this evening but going forward. But with no offence intended to Laois, this is a good draw for Donegal, who can get the win and regain some confidence.
For Conor Counihan and Cork, there is also serious pressure.The manager's team selection came under serious scrutiny in the wake of the Munster final defeat to Kerry. Indeed, for nearly all of his tenure, he has been accused of not being able to find his best 15.
How Ciaran Sheehan didn't start the Munster final was incredible. Counihan seems to have admitted he got it wrong by making six changes to his team – he has returned Alan Quirke to the goal in a response to how dominant Kerry were on kick-outs.
Despite their problems, they should emerge with a comfortable victory over Galway – and I would fear for the Tribesmen if Cork get a good start.
Tyrone are also coming in after a couple of indifferent performances but they too should be in the quarter-final draw. Meath could dominate the middle third and they won't be fearful after they showed against Dublin they can mix it with the best, even if their challenge waned over the last 20 minutes.
Mickey Harte knows how to prepare teams to win in Croke Park, though, and the forward power and experience through their team will be too much for the Royals. It is a chance to lay down a marker and show they are still among the best around, and that alone should provide them with the motivation they require.